"The Debt" Review: Two Times The Helen Mirren, Two Times The Fun
The Debt isn't your typical espionage drama. It isn't your typical time-shifting movie. It isn't even your typical World War II film. The latest film from John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Captain Correli's Mandolin) takes some of the best of all these element -- as well as some of the bad -- to put together an interesting character piece that escapes a lot of the conventions of these types of films.
Set in 1966, as well as 1997, "The Debt" is a character piece about a Mossad agents Rachel (played by Jessica Chastain and the incomparable Helen Mirren), her eventual husband (and ex-husband) Stefan (Marton Csokas and Tom Wilkinson), as well as David (Sam Worthington and Ciaran Hinds), and their mission to find and capture a Nazi war criminal, Dieter Vogel (played by Jesper Christensen, who you may recognize from the last two Bond films) and bring him back to Israel where he will be humiliated in front of the world.
Obviously, things don't go exactly as expected, and the three commit to keeping a lie in order to avoid a major embarrassment for their young and tumultuous nation. These acts come back to haunt them in 1997, where Rachel, the only able-bodied of the trio, must right the wrongs they committed in East Germany over three decades prior.
The film is a remake of a 2007 Israeli film of the same name, and is written in part by Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass and X-Men: First Class). But it's not a superhero film. In fact, Vaughn (as well as co-writers Peter Straughan and frequent Vaughn contributor Jane Goldman) and Madden make a point to show that these three young (and eventually old) secret agents have their own demons, their own flaws, and their own insecurities, which makes for a fresh take on a frequently worn out film genre. So much so, in fact, that it seems like an escape for Vaughn, who has been no stranger to action in his two major projects these last couple of years, and even Madden, who seems to finally break out with his great performance behind the camera.
But is it too much? Many people going to the theaters for The Debt, and who have seem the marketing for this film, likely expect a gritty action-drama about espionage and war atrocities -- likely elevated by the mere presence of Sam Worthington. At times, they definitely get what they came for, with several well placed action scenes, but for the most part, The Debt is something totally different. Instead of relying on those action sequences, Madden makes a point to use tension as the main theme of the movie. From the opening sequences to the very end, there is tension (both sexual and not) between the three main characters, in both time periods, as well as between the trio and Vogel due to various circumstances.
David, a loner and mysterious man, quickly falls in love with Rachel. Stefan, oblivious to this, takes advantage of Rachel when David pushes her away and gets her pregnant. In the present, Stefan and Rachel are divorced, creating even more tension between the two. And then there's Vogel. Rachel has to pose as a patient for the now-gynecologist, and the awkwardness there is self-explanatory, but furthers causes trouble in the group when they later reveal that they know who he is. And Madden has a seemingly uncanny ability to use a seemingly nothing moment to tighten the rope between all these characters even further throughout the film. The result is many great and unexpected moments over the course of nearly two hours. Every action sequence, every fight, every important moment is so well built that even if the film doesn't have the giant explosions or fight scenes that Hollywood has desensitized us to in recent years, anything much smaller has a greater effect, and that's all on Madden.
The film also makes excellent use of sound to press its points. From the background noise of a New Year's Eve party, to dripping rainwater into a pan, to the approaching sound of an ambulance, nearly everything you hear during the film has a purpose, and it's something you don't see that often in films these days.
In terms of acting, Helen Mirren gets first billing in the film, and when we actually see her, she's incredible as always. She pulls off the role of an aging Israeli secret agent to perfection, blending both her skills as an action star and a dramatic actress to near perfection. But she's only present for the very beginning of the film, and the third act. Still, Jessica Chastain, who plays her younger self, does a great job of playing one of the greatest greatest actresses of the last forty years, all while balancing the difficult job of portraying a young agent with her own insecurities as well as a difficult accent. Chastain is a relative newcomer who is appearing in six films this year, and if you were wondering why, The Debt will likely answer that question.
But beyond the two female leads, the acting is a little hit-or-miss. There's only so much you can expect of Sam Worthington, and he does a good job of what he's given, but the guy can barely pull off anything that isn't an Australian accent, yet alone a Jewish accent. That said, Worthington goes slightly against-type here, and it's pretty refreshing. Worthington is often criticized for being a little wooden in his acting chops, and while his portraying of young David is by no means award-worthy, the subtlety and nuance in his performance is surprising -- in a good way. The casting of his older self, however, is a little perplexing. Ciaran Hinds is a great actor, but he looks more like David's counterpart Stefan, and is barely present in the entire film.
On the other hand, the performances of Stefan are reversed. Tom Wilkinson, the older Stefan, is a phenomenal and underrated actor who does a great job in his role as a crippled intelligence officer, bitter about making the mistake of impregnating Rachel and carrying this lie with him, and more or less ruining his life. But again, just like Hinds, he's underused, and the casting of his younger self is a little annoying. Martin Csokas is a decent actor, but he looks nothing like Wilkinson and ends up being a little irrelevant to the story even though his older self is of such importance.
That said, the film might very well belong to Jesper Christensen and his performance of Vogel. Christensen can go from playing a war criminal and monster to an every day, understanding doctor in mere sentences, and is truly the source of a lot of the tension which carried the film.
While there are definitely some good performances here, some annoyances such as these casting oddities, as well as the ridiculous accents, keep it from being truly great. The writing is good, sometimes even great, but also plagued by some inconsistencies and long sequences where little to nothing happens -- and almost for no reason. But Vaughn more than makes up for with with some shocking twists and turns that really shouldn't be all that shocking.
The end result is a very good film and a great entry into a genre that has been needing a boost of energy in recent years. For everything that we're complaining about, "The Debt" more than makes up with it with great dramatic tension, good writing, and more than adequate acting. A good film, and a good way to start off September at the theaters. 8 out of 10.