Michael Caine: No rest for the wicked

Will playing a fascist finally earn Michael Caine a Best Actor Oscar? Sheila Johnston asks him

The old man's face is strawberry pink in the fierce sun. Sweating heavily, whether out of fear or because of his cheap, unnecessary bomber jacket, he crosses the little churchyard, opens the door to a chapel and slopes in, deferentially removing his flat cap. Then the camera stops rolling and the figure appears to shed 10 years in age and gain six inches in height, as he saunters over to say hello to me and crack jokes with the crew. The sad old git has morphed effortlessly into a movie star, whose name is Michael Caine.

Caine has adopted this shabby guise to play a former French collaborator, Pierre Broussard, who is being pursued for the execution of seven Jews over half a century ago. Protected after the war both by the French government and by the Catholic Church, he has lived for decades in comfortable obscurity. Now a new law has made him eligible for prosecution again, this time for "crimes against humanity", and sent him back on the run.

The actor has built his career on perfecting imperfection: full-blown villains (Get Carter), lovable rogues (Alfie), troubled, introspective anti-heroes (The Quiet American, which Caine hoped, wrongly, would win him the Best Actor Oscar that had always eluded him). But rarely, if ever, has he looked as dull and grey as he does now as Broussard, scurrying one step away from the glare of discovery, this bright summer's day in the south of France.

"I put on a stone for this role," he says. "And I humped myself down so that I looked about 5ft 9ins - actually I'm 6ft 2ins - to make him a small man, round-shouldered, shuffling around. I've come across Nazis and religious zealots all my life and they always have the same things in common, which are sadness and stupidity. I hate them but I feel tremendously sorry for them."

The film, called The Statement and based on Brian Moore's novel of the same name, draws on numerous real-life cases which rocked the French political establishment throughout the Nineties. Moore's immediate template was Paul Touvier, who received a life sentence in 1994 and died in prison two years later at the age of 91. Old Nazis continued to crawl out of the woodwork. Klaus Barbie, the former Gestapo chief in Lyons, died in 1991 while serving a life sentence. Maurice Papon enjoyed an illustrious career before being convicted of war crimes in 1999; he was freed on health grounds last year, amid huge controversy.

Today's scenes are being shot in Marseilles, a stronghold of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Front National politician who became a serious contender for the Presidency last year, despite pronouncing the gas chambers a "detail of history" only six years previously. "The Statement is about something that happened in my lifetime," says the film's director, Norman Jewison, 77. "A lot of it was pushed aside; no one really wanted to talk about it. When Papon was put in jail and it hit the front page of The New York Times, that stimulated my excitement about the story."

Jewison has hopped all over the map in his long career, both literally and metaphorically, from heavy-duty social comment (In The Heat of the Night), to musicals (Fiddler on the Roof) and romantic comedy (Moonstruck). A trim, nippy man in shorts, trainers and a baseball cap, he works fast and decisively, despite the blistering heat, and the traffic chaos caused by one of France's frequent rail strikes.

Now he is offering Tilda Swinton some psychological insights into her character, a Paris magistrate leading the hunt for Broussard. Swinton is concerned about a scene which requires her to barge arrogantly into a church believed to be harbouring the criminal. "You've gotta big pair of balls!" Jewison tells her succinctly. A few takes later, the scene is in the bag.

"One of the refreshing and unpretentious things about the film is that it's a straight political thriller," Swinton says afterwards. "It doesn't try to be a study of any of the characters. A man is being hunted and people are hunting him for various different reasons. The judge I play is interested in finding, not Broussard, but whoever has been engineering his protection for over 40 years. She knows that the Catholic Church alone would not have the power to do that; it has to be someone who was actively involved himself in persecuting Jews and has come back into government at the very top of the tree. That's the prize she's really got her eye on."

All of which seems hardly calculated to please the Vatican, the Elysée Palace or the many local fans of the Front National (which is possibly why though nobody says as much, no French journalists are visiting the set). However, Broussard is a rat in a moral maze and the script takes a sceptical view of its supposed heroes. Swinton's character might be acting to boost her career. An unnamed vigilante group could be ex-Nazis keen to silence Broussard before he blows the whistle on them too, or else maverick Jewish militants baying for his blood.

The casting of Caine further muddies the waters. "There's a dark side to Michael but he also has great humanity and humility," Jewison says. "Broussard is a racist and a murderer, but there were thousands of collaborators who thought they were doing the right thing for France. Could any one of us have been caught up in that moment in history?"

The film is being shot in English. "I always work in my own language," the director says. "I guess everybody in Fiddler on the Roof should have been speaking in Yiddish or Russian, but these things don't bother me." Thus, Caine speaks in his usual dulcet tones, as do the rest of the cast. Jeremy Northam jokes ruefully, "I learnt my lesson on The Golden Bowl," referring to his role in that film as a sleazy Italian prince. "No more accents."

In The Statement, he plays a military colonel assisting Swinton. "He does things by the book; he believes in the State as an ordered entity, as opposed to the fiery, unconventional judge. It's an odd couple pairing." So far, so formulaic, but Northam, too, notes the plot's ambiguities. "Having already been pardoned, Broussard is accused of crimes against humanity, and the story implicitly asks: 'Who are we to invent this new charge against him? If we want to change the goalposts, where does that lead us?' The film has to me current overtones, like the definition of the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. Do we ignore that treaty and then expect our own troops in different situations to enjoy the terms of the Geneva Convention?"

Jewison certainly is a fast worker. It's now six months since our chat, and the film has just had its world premiere in LA. Reviewed so far as either "by-the-numbers and fatally overlong" (Variety) or as "a superlative political thriller" (Hollywood Reporter), it goes on limited release in the US on 12 December in order to qualify for Oscar consideration.

Some pundits reckon the story too European for Academy voters, although that fact (and similarly mixed reviews) did not hurt Roman Polanski's The Pianist: it took three Oscars earlier this year, including one for screenwriter Ronald Harwood, who has also scripted The Statement. So will Caine's performance as the shadowy Broussard finally secure him the Best Actor statuette? "I've given up on that now," he shrugs. "I only work when I really want to, and it's got to be a picture that I am unable to refuse. I'm 70 years old and I don't want to get up at 6.30 in the morning and have to learn 10 lines of crap.

"I have no idea what my character is like," he adds cheerfully. "It's an extraordinary role because I've been on my own on screen a great deal of the time. It's the shortest schedule I've ever had on a picture where I play the lead, because half the time they're photographing the people chasing me. It's a performance that will be controlled more by the director and the editor than by me because it's so far distanced from everybody. It has been kind of lonely, funnily enough."