Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington in The Debt
Based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same name (Ha-Hov in Hebrew), John Madden’s The Debt is one half of a good movie. Unfortunately, most of the best parts of a great cast are left to spin their wheels in the half that doesn’t quite work.
The story revolves around three Israeli Mossad agents who sneak into East Germany in 1965 to capture and bring to trial the notorious Surgeon of Birkenau, a Nazi scientist who had performed horrible medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners during World War II. While the mission does not go as planned, it is nevertheless considered a success and the three return to Israel as national heroes.
Flash forward to 1997 where the agents are being celebrated upon the publishing of a book recounting their heroic exploits. One of the agents, Rachel, still carries physical scars from the mission and it quickly becomes clear from the furtive glances and haunted looks between the members of the old team that the scars go more than skin deep for each of them. There’s something unspoken, some long buried secret that plagues them more than 30 years later. The film then goes back to 1965 to show what really happened during the mission and then returns once more to 1997 so now revealed past wrongs can be righted.
Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas play the agents in 1965. Chastain is terrific as the potentially lethal but emotionally vulnerable Rachel. This is the third film (as of this writing) in which she’s starred in 2011, following The Tree of Life and The Help. She’s excellent in all three and the huge differences between them all magnify what a terrific actress she is. Somewhat less successful are Csokas and the blandly handsome Worthington. Neither is a liability, but Worthington especially shows the limits of his range. Little was asked of him in Avatar and even less in Terminator Salvation, but this film has a bit more on its mind and Worthington isn’t really up to the task. It’s too bad because the 1965 sequences are the best parts of the film.
With East Germany still behind the Iron Curtain, identifying their target, capturing him and bringing him out alive is a dangerous task for the three agents. Complicating this already difficult assignment, a kind of romantic triangle develops between them. It’s an extra layer of psychological stress added to an already exciting mission thrillingly portrayed. This mission is a strong backbone for what could’ve been a great adult suspense film all by itself.
As good as Chastain is, the star of this part of the show is Jesper Christensen (Casino Royale, Everlasting Moments) as Dr. Bernhardt, the elderly gynecologist (shiver) whom the three suspect is really Dieter Vogel the evil Nazi they intend to bring to justice. Christensen is creepy and menacing even (especially) when he’s being kindly and gentle. The scenes where Rachel presents herself to him as a patient and he probes her with both instruments and pointed questions – or perhaps they’re innocent – are almost unbearable. Does the old doctor suspect her of some ulterior motive or is it simply bedside manner? The pent up danger that Christensen conveys threatens the former, but the subtle way he plays it allows you to hope for the latter.
Once the agents decide Bernhardt/Vogel is their man, his capture and their attempted escape from the east all hum along suspensefully, but the scenes where the doctor is held in captivity are even better. Tied up in a quiet dingy apartment hideout while the agents spend many days reworking their spoiled plans, Christensen the actor goes to work again as his character needles his captors, gathering information he can use to worm himself between them while he waits for a moment to attempt an escape. It’s a psychological battle the doctor is playing (and winning) and Christensen is a master of the nuance needed to portray it effectively without being obvious.
With all of these elements, a simple, straightforward telling of the 1965 mission and its complications would’ve made for a nice espionage suspense film that features a little extra emotional and historical kick. Unfortunately, there has to be a twist and it has to be told in a fractured, decades-spanning chronology to enhance the mystery element. Originally intended to juice up and even deepen the narrative, the twist here only serves to cheapen an otherwise compelling story and to turn it into a routine Hollywood thriller. The 1997 sequences of the film, which are intended to pay the whole story off both in terms of action and theme, fall disappointingly flat and they’re an appalling waste of Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson who play the agents in retirement.
Ciaran Hinds has shone in dozens of roles ranging from Miss Petigrew Lives for a Day to Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime and from HBO’s Rome to Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, but here he’s literally given nothing to do but stand around looking rumpled and haunted. Tom Wilkinson can own a film without even trying and in just a few minutes of screen time (see: The Ghost Writer), but he barely registers here. For her part, Helen Mirren gets the most to chew on and she comes across the best, but it’s still not enough.
It’s possible that, in the Israeli version of the film playing to an Israeli audience, the moral Pandora’s box opened by the film’s twist may have resonated as deeply as it was intended to, but in this version many steps removed from the Holocaust and its aftermath, the moral complexity is never fully developed. It’s undeniably there, but it’s a ripe fruit left to rot on the tree. Without that thematic impact, the convolutions of The Debt simply come across as cheap manipulations and a superb cast is left twisting in the wind.
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