John Madden, 2010
Starring: Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Jesper Christensen
In Berlin, 1965, three young Mossad agents, Rachel, David, and Stefan are ordered to capture a notorious Nazi doctor and bring him back to Israel to stand trial. In "present day," which is Israel 1997, Rachel's daughter has written a book about the incident. Rachel was forced to shoot and kill the doctor when he attacked her and almost escaped. All three returned home to Israel as heroes. With the book's release, secrets that they have kept hidden for thirty years come to haunt them and Rachel is forced to take matters into her own hands. I will say no more of the plot, though I'm sure every other reviewer has spoiled it by now.
The Debt is a remake of a 2007 Israeli film of the same name, directed by Assaf Bernstein. The original is now on my very long list of films to see, because I'm sure it's even more enjoyable than the very likable remake. The writing is excellent and for that alone I would recommend the film. The smart, well-crafted screenplay was penned by Peter Straughn (The Men Who Stare at Goats), Jane Goldman (Stardust, Kick-Ass) and Matthew Vaughn (producer and director of Layer Cake, Stardust, and Kick-Ass). Though I normally hate plot twists and can see them from about ten miles away, these were elegant and unapologetic. The triangular relationship between Rachel, David, and Stefan is another powerful driving force of the film, as was the divide between past and present.
Though The Debt could be described as a political thriller about spies in post-war East Berlin, it is bleaker and more personal than most of its cinematic brethren. The emotional tone is relatively dark and moves between the private, pressure cooker of an apartment in Berlin to the open, public spaces in the present, which are steeped with bitterness, regret, and deceit.
The acting is fantastic, but Helen Mirren stars in it, so what would you expect? Rachel is split between Dame Mirren and newcomer Jessica Chastain, who will also appear in Terrence Malick's upcoming epic, The Tree of Life. Chastain is the perfect blend of emotional and reserved, vulnerable, yet determined and I look forward to her future film work. The sensitive, resourceful David is split between Ciaran Hinds and Sam Worthington. Though I adore Ciaran Hinds, he has slight screen time and would probably be more appropriate for a more aggressive, confident character, rather than the sick and confused older David. Sam Worthington, on the other hand, continues to surprise the hell out of me. He's definitely on the rise as an action star (Terminator Salvation, Avatar, Clash of the Titans), but who knew he could act? I only have two slight criticisms. First, his Australian accent comes through pretty strongly, which was distracting. Second, between Chastain and Csokas, he's the weakest link in terms of acting, which oddly fits in with his character's similarly more passive role in the trio.
The ambitious, domineering Stefan is split between Tom Wilkinson and Marton Csokas. Wilkinson, as always, is perfect and he doesn't let Mirren outshine him in their scenes together. I have to tell you a secret about Marton Csokas. Though he is an accomplished stage actor in New Zealand, I never really thought too highly of his acting skills. He was Borias in Xena, not that I've ever watched that before... He also played Celeborn in Lord of the Rings and the evil Yorgi in XXX. But he is amazing in The Debt. I was literally in awe of the difference in skill level between this film and the past work that I've seen. I hope Hollywood will sit up and take notice, because he's great.
My biggest and maybe only criticism of the film is the divide between characters. Though all the actors do an outstanding job, I'm not sure that that the transition between past Rachel/David/Stefan to their older, "present day" selves is a smooth one. I felt like I was watching six different characters, not three, and it seems to have been written that way.
Finally, let me add that I will watch almost any movie about intelligence agents. The way some people are Civil war nerds, I'm an intelligence agency nerd and the Mossad is one of my favorites to read about. In case you're in the dark, the Mossad is Israel's national intelligence agency next to Aman (military intelligence) and Shin Bet (internal security service, kind of like the FBI), but the Mossad is responsible for a lot of things that the CIA do here, like gathering intelligence and covert ops, as well as rescuing Jews from countries with troublesome political environments and no Aliyah agencies. Like the Israeli army, they're known for being pretty bad ass. They actually warned the FBI and CIA about 9/11 before it happened. History lesson over.
At any rate, definitely check out The Debt when it comes to theaters. It is one of those rare films that I think a lot of people will enjoy; the audience in the theater I saw it in was incredibly diverse. It will supposedly be released by Miramax on December 29th. Edit: Here is the single disc Miramax DVD.