Tuesday, November 15, 2011

New Release Review: The Debt (John Madden, 2011)

Directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love?) from a collaborated screenplay between Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass and X-Men First Class – two films I didn’t much care for), Kris Thykier and Eduardo Rossoff, The Debt is actually a remake of a 2007 Israeli film of the same name. Despite the top cast and an intriguing postwar spy premise, The Debt is disappointing. To put it simply, The Debt is a middling and fairly forgettable espionage thriller that unfortunately ruins some nice moments with a convoluted and at times confusing plot, an awkwardly edited time-shifting style, a wearying and infrequently interesting story that has been stretched to an extreme length and manages to avoid relaying anything meaningful or resonating about the Holocaust.

The film begins in 1997 as shocking news reaches retired Mossad secret agents Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) and Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) about their former colleague David Peretz (Ciaran Hinds). Following the release of Rachel’s daughter Sarah's (Romi Aboulafia) book, who has honoured her mother’s achievements as a Mossad agent, Rachel is approached by Stephan with news about a former mission whose outcome has remained a secret within the group - and what is required of her to keep the truth hidden.

All three have been venerated for three decades by their country because of the mission they undertook back in 1966, when the trio (portrayed, respectively, by Jessica Chastain, Martin Csokas and Sam Worthington) tracked down a Nazi war criminal responsible for medical experiments on Jews during World War II. Their mission is to capture Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), infamously known as “The Surgeon of Birkenau”, and bring him to Israel to face justice.

Rachel plants herself as a patient at Vogel’s gynecology clinic posing as a German citizen with Argentinean heritage. Having sedated the man, they keep him contained as a hostage in their apartment after they are detected during their attempt to transport him by train. Through a twist of fate, events are put in place that will forever change their lives, and result in a tragic tale of lost love.

If it sounds pretty similar, it’s because it has been done before. There is very little here to make it stand out within the genre. It isn’t as intelligent as it pretends to be, the performances are solid but not spectacular (Sam Worthington’s Aussie accent is still evidently audible and he fares badly alongside his young colleagues, and Ciaran Hinds’ role was disappointingly small), and the shifting time periods often stifle the suspense and intrigue.

The events of the past, though they are as stagnant (at times) as the apartment where most of the action takes place, are the superior ones. The chief action sequence is well crafted and compelling, but is all undone by the events that follow, an ordinary montage recounting the group’s struggles with their prisoner, and an overextended period where each of the group have emotional altercations with their sadistic captive.

Even the film’s ‘twist’ fails to deliver much of a punch, maybe because I was still reeling by the early revelation of Rachel’s supposed heroics (and it is literally read out of the novel by Helen Mirren, and relayed as a flashback) at the launch dinner. By the time Helen Mirren embarks on her lone quest to track down a still elusive Vogel (who must have been in his 90’s by then) I had lost interest.

To make things more complex during the mission, a predictable and unconvincing love triangle forms between the three, causing tension. Rachel is a very attractive woman, and the other two men are, for the purposes of drama, very different. David lost his entire family in the Holocaust and has become a quiet and reserved loner seeking revenge. He has evident affections for Rachel that he stifles for the sake of the mission. Stefan is an ambitious, hotheaded and empowering individual who takes advantage of Rachel in a sensitive moment, and later fathers her child. I think there are some evident casting problems here, specifically considering that Helen Mirren is playing Rachel at an age when she is supposed to only be 55. I was also not a fan of Tom Wilkinson's casting. I find him to be very typecast these days.

Overall, the screenwriters do quite a good job creating a film that effectively conveys the daily struggles of these ordinary people, trained to be someone else and then live the remainder of their lives plagued by a secret. But not even the lovely Jessica Chastain, who will receive some awards recognition for either Take Shelter or The Help and continues to impress here, and a compelling stretch in the middle, can turn this into a film I can wholeheartedly recommend.

My Rating: ★★1/2 (C)


  1. I had no interest in seeing this film - it hit theaters over here for a couple weeks - just looks so god damned bland.

  2. It is bland. That's a great way to describe it.