Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Movie Review: The Debt

The Debt ***
Directed by: John Madden.
Written By: Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan based on the film written by Assaf Bernstein & Ido Rosenblum.
Starring: Jessica Chastain (Young Rachel Singer), Sam Worthington (Young David), Marton Csokas (Young Stefan), Helen Mirren (Rachel Singer), Tom Wilkinson (Stefan), CiarĂ¡n Hinds (David), Jesper Christensen (Vogel), Romi Aboulafia (Sarah).

The Debt is a thriller, that is also a romantic triangle and a moral puzzle. That it attempts do all three of these things is admirable, and while it may have bitten off a little more than it can chew, the result is a fast paced, entertaining movie that I found snuck up on me as it progressed. Yes, the big secret the movie reveals about three quarters into its running time was obvious from the outset, but the moral implications that arise in the films last act elevate the film.

The film mostly takes place in Berlin in 1967. Three Mossad agents – Rachel (Jessica Chastain), David (Sam Worthington) and Stefan (Marton Csokas) are sent there because they think they have spotted an infamous Nazi doctor war criminal, Vogel (Jesper Christensen) – who performed experiments on Jews in the camps. Their mission is to first confirm his identity, then kidnap him and bring him back to Israel to stand trial in front of the whole world. They are able to identify and kidnap him, but then they screw up their exit strategy, and have to hold onto him for days on end waiting for another opportunity.

The film bookends the action from 1967 with scenes from the mid-1990s, where the daughter of Rachel (here played by Helen Mirren) and Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) has just written a book about her hero parents and their actions on that mission – where we learn that Vogel escapes, but as he was running away, Rachel shot and killed him. Rachel and Stefan have long since divorced, and although she has left the Mossad, he is now its Chief. David (Ciaran Hinds) left Israel shortly after the mission was over, and has just showed back up in their lives. But why is he so upset?

I’m sure you can piece together what actually happened on that mission, as well as the mechanics of the love triangle in the movie as well. Neither is really all that original. In terms of the mission, something went wrong, and the official story isn’t what really happened. In terms of the love triangle, Rachel is drawn to both men, but while David seems to genuinely love her, Stefan seems more interested in sex, and stupidly it is him that Rachel ends up in bed with.

That last paragraph probably seems like I am insulting the film, but I’m not really doing that. No, it’s not an original plot, but it is one that is handled with great skill by director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), who moves things along quickly. The performances by the three younger actors – particularly Chastin – are really quite good, and Jesper Christensen just drips evil as the Nazi criminal, who even when he is tied up in a corner waiting to die won’t admit he’s down anything wrong, and works at getting under their skin. The film kept my attention throughout this segment of the film.

It was the final act that I think really makes the film – and not just because it is exciting in the ways the best thrillers are (although it is that as well, I also had to put the timeline out of my mind, because the characters ages didn’t make much sense to me). But it is really in this section where the moral implications of the film come into play. Helen Mirren is certainly the MVP of this movie, even given her limited screen time, because not only does she nail the Israeli accent, you also feel the weight of her choices weighing her down in this final segment. Tom Wilkinson does a good job as her slimy, politically motivated ex, and Ciaran Hinds does a good job of looking morose (which really is the only thing they ask him to do), but it is Mirren who makes this final act – and in effect the whole movie – hit the hardest. The Debt is certainly a flawed film, but it is a fascinating one as well.

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