– Summary –
Director : John Madden
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, Ciaran Hinds, Jesper Christensen.
Approx Running Time : 113 Minutes
Synopsis: Three Mossad agents are tasked with capturing a Nazi War Criminal and returning him to Israel to face justice for his crimes.
What we think : Absorbing thriller catches the imagination with a number of slight twists in the tale; Mirren does well in a leading role, as do Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain. The uneven tone of the film, however, undoes a lot of the good work here. It’s a fine line between drama and thriller, with The Debt trying to be both and ultimately not quite nailing either.
It’s all just a little bit of history repeating…
You know how you get those awesome foreign films that are really popular with a select audience of dedicated fans, and then Hollywood recognizes the popularity of said film and decides to make it into an English-language version not very long after? Like… a couple of years? The Debt is one of those films. The film The Debt is a remake of, an Israeli movie known as HuHov, came out in 2007, and here we are, a few years later, with a Hollywood Star Version of the same story – because damn if people don’t like to read subtitles. There’s subtitles in this film too, you know. Ahem. Regardless of your disposition towards remakes, and the validity of doing so so soon after the original, The Debt is a solid effort from director John Madden, and casts lead actress Helen Mirren is a role that truly stretches her as a performer. The Debt isn’t without flaws (damn, this means it won’t get full marks!) but it’s eminently watchable, and some of the time utterly captivating.
Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) is a former Mossad agent finding acclaim as the person who killed the notorious Surgeon Of Brikenau, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a Nazi doctor who operated out of the infamous Death Camp by experimenting on people, in a clandestine raid to have him returned to Israel from Berlin to face trial. Rachel’s past, however, catches up with her, when her former colleague Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) informs her that Vogel claims to still be alive. The third agent involved in the operation to extract Vogel from Germany, David (Ciaran Hinds), commits suicide when he realizes that Stefan has returned. Concurrently, we witness the operation take place in 1965, with the younger versions of Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stefan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) planning and executing the raid – until something goes wrong, and the trio must hole up in their safe-house with Vogel as their prisoner. As their stay in Berlin becomes more drawn out, Vogel begins to worm his way into their heads, causing friction and eventually outright anger – leading Rachel to be put directly into harms way.
The Debt is an interesting film in that the dual narrative strands – the “past” timeline in 1965, and the “modern” one in 1997 – are interwoven in such a way that a direct retelling wouldn’t have worked. As things unfold in the present, we flash back to the past (via Rachel’s memory) and it’s this switching between timelines that gives the film much of its emotional impact. The film unspools in a fashion not unlike an Agatha Christie murder mystery, just without the stuffy dialogue and lounge-room denouement, with the twin narrative aspects working really well in conjunction with each other. The problem for me, however, was I found myself more interested in the 1965 tangent – featuring The Help Oscar Nominee Jessica Chastain, Aussie Sam “I was in Avatar” Worthington, and Lord Of The Rings’ “Celeborn”, Marton Csokas – to be the more interesting and exciting of the two; Helen Mirren did her damnedest to make her storyline interesting, but because her character does so little during much of the film I just wanted to get back to the operatives capturing Vogel.
The strength of the film lies within its performances. The entire cast are solid, even when their characters perhaps aren’t. I was annoyed with the underlying romantic subplot threesome between Rachel, David and Stefan, and felt it detracted a little from the focus of the core elements of the story – the capture and forced relocation of a Nazi criminal. Jessica Chastain’s character aside, I thought the rest of the people in this story were given fairly short thrift in terms of backstory and development; I really wanted to know more about David, whose past is hinted at in this but never definitively realized. Stefan, although suitably essayed by Csokas, remains the most 2 dimensional character of all, and with Ciaran Hinds’ tangent coming to an abrupt end right off the bat, of all the characters in the movie, he was the least enjoyable. There’s an intensity to both Worthington and Csokas, however, that makes up for their characters’ shortcomings; Worthington especially can play brooding really well (we saw this in Avatar!) and he has a quiet fire behind his eyes as he burns across the screen.
Helen Mirren, together with Jessica Chastain, deliver equally solid performances as Rachel; Mirren, however, has less to do physically, while Chastain lacks the emotional intensity the part required (my opinion, of course) – the combination of the two flawed aspects of the same character results in a central role that doesn’t quite work as well as it needs to. It’s pretty damn good, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that it should have been a more powerful one. Chastain certainly comes over better than Mirren in this, which makes up for what I thought was a fairly simplistic performance in The Help.
Easily the best actor in this film is resident Nazi villain Vogel, played by Jesper Christensen. Christensen is truly vile in this, a creepy, slimy Nazi propagandist who still believes in the cause even though the war was lost years earlier. While I’m thankful Vogel never really resorted to the expectation of trying to justify his actions, his taunting of the Mossad agents (for those wondering, Mossad is the Jewish version of the CIA – hence the hatred of Mossad for the Nazis) is particularly vicious. Christensen’s role is really well written, never once coming off as simply cliched Nazi Generic Villain, instead having an underlying humanity (of sorts) which keeps the audience involved in his plight, for good or bad. Christensen delivers the performance with a spine-chilling intensity, the kind of lost-puppy who’ll still bite you if he has the chance sympathetic creation which serves to remind us all of just how despicable the Nazi’s really were.
Director John Madden handles the twin strands of this story with an apparent ease – the film can feel lumbered with lengthy pauses, as if Madden was trying to marinate the audience with what he’s trying to achieve here. The competing storylines have alternate urgency as well, with the ’65 tangent feeling more energetic and thrilling, while the ’97 thread feeling more like a turgid dramatic wallowing. Unfortunately, this works against the film, since it’s unable to be both a thriller and a drama successfully: Madden should have made it an outright thriller, with less emphasis on the arching drama from Mirren and co-star Tom Wilkinson (who’s consigned to a wheelchair for the entire thing), and I think The Debt could have been really, really great. Production values are high, and the musical score by Thomas Newman is especially good, if slightly restrained.
The Debt is a frustrating film, in a sense – it tries so hard to be a top line thriller, yet comes unstuck when the talky dramatics play out; dramatics which, I admit, aren’t always as absorbing as the central premise itself. It’s still a very good film, and certainly well made in terms of production and casting, it’s just the uneven tone between the two central narratives doesn’t click like it should. That said, I’m going to recommend this film as a slow-burn thriller it’s made out to be, because the story does have a couple of good twists and turns to keep you guessing; and to see Mirren in anything on screen is always a bonus. Worth a look – you won’t be disappointed.
What others are saying about The Debt:
Dan The Man thought it was average: “The Debt features good performances from the cast, an inspired direction, and a real big air of mystery and suspense; but has too many problems with not too many surprises, and just ending up being another conventional thriller that may seem cool at first, but ends up being a tad disappointing.”