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The Debt (2011)

September 2, 2011


written by: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, & Peter Straughan

produced by: Matthew Vaughn, Kris Thykier, & Eduardo Rossoff

directed by: John Madden

rated R (for some violence and language)
114 min.
U.S. release date: August 31, 2011
Last October, “The Debt” was supposed to close out the Chicago International Film Festival, but it was mysteriously taken off the schedule. There was no definitive reason, it was just gone with an undetermined release date. While it did turn up at a handful of other select film festivals around that time, it never made its scheduled release date of December 29th. Considering the film had some Oscar buzz at the time, such release uncertainty hardly earns any confidence among filmgoers. Now, in a move that gains even less hope, Miramax decides to release the latest from director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) on the last day of August. That’s generally not a good sign.

That’s because the last two weeks of August is traditionally considered to be a dumping ground for studios. Oh, they’ll put some type of spin and promotion on their releases, but ultimately they just want to get it out there and be done with it. It’s too bad “The Debt” has such a faithless trajectory to the big-screen, since this is a film that surprised me.
Based on what I knew going in, my expectations were low-yet-hopeful (knowing the cast involved) for this espionage thriller. With its deft storytelling and subject matter quite compelling, “The Debt” showcases some fine characterization as well as strong performances.

DEBT Helen Mirren


The film opens in 1966, where we see a trio of Mossad operatives Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), David Puretz (Sam Worthington), and Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas) arrive in Israel after completing a mission in East Germany. Their arrival is celebrated by everyone but them. They seem withdrawn, weary, and wounded (specifically Rachel who has a bandage covering the majority of her right cheek). 

Fast forward to 1997, where we see an older woman with a nasty scar on her face. She is clearly Rachel (Helen Mirren) and we she is attending the release party of her daughter Sara’s new book about her mother’s heroic mission many years ago. She becomes increasingly uncomfortable as her daughter tells with great pride how Rachel, David (Ciarán Hinds) and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) captured and killed Nazi doctor, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christenson), a monster know as the “Surgeon of Birkenau” who would perform sadistic experiments on Jewish women and children in concentration camps. 

As Rachel reflects on that specific time, we discover the hard truth of the events revolving around their mission. We also learn how it has affected the trio for years (some more than others), and when a more urgent revelation is revealed in the late 90s, it is up to Rachel to take action and correct their very grievous wrongdoing. 

If it all sounds somewhat vague, well that’s deliberate on my part. It’s a challenge to come across an engaging adult thriller nowadays, so far be it for me to spoil any further details. Seeing Madden ease back and forth through time with a taut screenplay is a treat in and of itself. 

The film consists of some fine acting by both the younger and older versions of these characters, but Chastain and Mirren as Rachel is the obvious focus. It helps that they are fantastic in their roles. Early on, we see how in order to get close to the evil doctor, young Rachel must pose as a patient in his gynecological practice. Chastain has to dial down Rachel’s unease while allowing her enemy to examine her spread eagle, lest she give away her cover. The audience feels her struggle, not knowing whether or not Vogel is on to her. As the older Rachel, Mirren has more demons to navigate with, and she is an actress who can handle such a task without seeming like am Oscar bait role. Even when there is some ridiculousness called upon her at the end, Mirren is always in the moment and so are viewers. There’s a reason why both actresses are two of the busiest actors working today, since their talents are numerous and their commitment is so convincing. It becomes something special to see them in the same movie. 
So, while the film has two capable females carrying much of the film, the men are equally important. Christenson (who played Mr. White in the last two Bond films) in particular, who exudes a scummy and detestable charisma as Vogel. We never really feel bad for him when he’s captured and help prisoner by the trio in their apartment, mainly because we know what he’s done, but also since he so easily turns the tables on them psychologically. It’s torturous to watch the captive get the upper hand. 

Worthington has received much criticism for his wooden portrayals in the past (“Clash of the Titans”), but the role of David calls for someone who is tortured within. An introverted man who’s trying to keep it together, lest he unpredictably unravels. Hinds (“Munich”), a fine actor, is perfect as the older David, a man disturbed by the reality of his past actions. Equally effective is Wilkinson, who matches the volatile determined leader Csokas (“The Bourne Supremacy) establishes as Stephan. 

It’s quite uncanny how all the older actors match up to the persona the younger actors create. They not only look similar, but their behavior is identifiably succinct. I had no trouble at all keeping track of who’s who and that’s not easy to do in a movie that jumps timelines. I credit the actors and Madden for both clearly defining who they are and positioning them with deliberate care. 

“The Debt” is based on a 2007 Israeli film of the same name. I doubt many have seen it. I know I had never heard of it. As far as remakes go, if it’s done well, bringing a seldom-seen film to a wider audience can be a good thing. Despite the film’s conclusion falling into some familiar tropes, the first three-quarters of the film had already hooked me, so I was forgiving. Deftly handling such themes as revenge, trust, and guilt, this suspenseful thriller will hopefully find a receptive audience.      
4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 2, 2011 10:05 am

    I’ve taken note and will look out for it, love Helen Mirren and Ciaran Hinds and of course Tom WIlkinson, who seems to be in everything these days.

  2. Wendi F. permalink
    September 2, 2011 11:23 am

    Between this and “Tree of Life” Chastain is really making herself an actress to look out for.


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