Judge Jim Thomas understands debt—and when he forgets, his bookie's goons forcefully remind him.
Vengeance comes at a price.
The espionage thriller appears to be poised for a comeback, with another James Bond film in the works, a well as the impending Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The allure of the genre is understandable; the plot is not nearly as important as the execution. Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) brings us a tale of post World War II angst, Nazi hunters, lost loves, fertility treatments, book launches, and nursing homes. Quite the combination, eh? Universal brings before us The Debt.
Facts of the Case
In 1966, three young Mossad agents—Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life), David Peretz (Sam Worthington, Avatar), and Stefan Gold (Marton Csokas, The Bourne Supremacy)—set out on a mission to capture an infamous Nazi war criminal, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen, Casino Royale). The success of their mission makes all three of them national heroes and makes two of them husband and wife. However, success brings with it unexpected pressures. Now, in 1997, those three agents (now played by, respectively, Helen Mirren (The Queen), Ciarán Hinds (There Will be Blood), and Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton) must come to terms with what happened on that missionÑand what did not happen.
Movies with dual plots involving the same characters in two different time periods have two key hurdles. First, you have to match the characters playing the younger characters with actors for their older selves. On that point, The Debt almost works magnificently. Chastain and Mirren don't really look that much alike, but they finesse that by having Chastain pick up a facial scar that we then see on Mirren. On top of that, Madden takes care to get similar looks from both of them just enough times that we accept the pairing. Csokas and Wilkinson share an imposing presence—all the more impressive given that Wilkinson plays his part from a wheelchair. The "almost" is mainly due to the pairing of Hinds and Worthington; while both nail their respective parts, the physical resemblance is more than a reach—so much so that early in the film, when we are being introduced to the two sets of characters, it's hard to make the link between the two actors.
The second hurdle is that both plots should be equally compelling, and that's perhaps a bigger problem here. The 1965 storyline is gripping, edge-of-your-seat type stuff. The ultimate resolution in 1997 though comes across as hopelessly contrived. It's somewhat satisfying, in no small part due to Helen Mirren's performance; nonetheless, it's still markedly weaker than the preceding events, in large part because it's a fairly common plot. The two parts are connected in part through a love triangle that wants to be a subtext for the entire movie. Rachel becomes involved with Stefan, eventually marrying him, even though it's clear that there's a much deeper emotional bond between Rachel and David. That tension needs to be a driving force in the latter part of the movie, but the tension never quite gels, partly because of the stumble linking Hinds and Worthington, and partly because the film's structure—bouncing back and forth between 1965 and 1997—makes developing emotional ties problematic. Consequently, too many of the 1997 scenes fail to achieve the needed resonance.
Technically, the disc is solid. The video is strong, and highlights Madden's meticulous direction, whether it's the dingy palette of 1965 Berlin or the slightly enhanced palette of 1997, it's all razor sharp. The sound is equally solid; all channels are used well, particularly in an early sequence when water dripping into buckets becomes a key plot device.
The extras, on the other hand, are disappointing. There are a handful of forgettable featurettes, plus a commentary track by Madden and producer Kris Thykier. The pair seem just a little too detached during the proceedings; we get some useful info here and there, but there are frequent pauses and neither really seem that thrilled to be there.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the serious structural weaknesses, John Madden almost pulls it off. A large part of the credit goes to the actors, who turn in tremendous performances across the board. The trio in 1965 make the film work; their interactions with one another genuine—there's a striking sequence in which Rachel practices hand-to-hand combat with both men while rehearsing the details of her cover story that emphasizes the deadly stakes. The actors playing the older characters are equally impressive. A standout performance from Helen Mirren is all but a given at this point in her career, and she doesn't disappoint, rising to the occasion in a way that elevates the material. Rachel's character is the film's anchor in more ways than one—not only is she the critical player in the plan to abduct Vogel, but she's also the anchor between her two male compatriots, in a romantic way, but also in a more symbolic way; David is driven by duty, while Stefan is driven by ambition. Just as Rachel is caught between the two men, she is also caught between the two motives, and it's in conveying that stress that Mirren's performance is best appreciated. Far from being a routine Nazi villain, Christiansen brings real depth to the character. In his initial scenes with Rachel, for instance, we see both his warm manner and his innate suspicion of any newcomer, and little touches, such as his concern for his wife, remind us that he is just as human as those who hunt him.
Another strength of the movie is Madden's deft direction. Despite the script's weaknesses, when it comes to crafting set pieces, Madden is at the top of his game. Whether it's an action sequence, such as the abduction or the attempt to leave Berlin, or a more emotional sequence such as the captive Vogel attempting to engage his captors in conversation, Madden composes each shot with care.
Despite several great sequences both big and small and strong performances across the board, a number of fundamental problems undermine the plot and prevent a strong emotional payoff. That said, The Debt remains a taut, intelligent thriller, and those have become all too rare these days.
While this debt is never fully repaid, the court cannot bring itself to find the defendant guilty on account of the film's exceptionally strong first half.
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