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The Debt Review

the-debt-reviewThe thing to know about The Debt is that it is basically two movies rolled into one. They are essentially and unbreakably tied together, but they are very different in their attitudes, plots and even their looks. But in the end, when paired together, they offer an original and engaging film with a few problem parts. Well, original-ish — the movie is actually a remake of the Israeli film, Ha-Hov. But for Hollywood, remaking a foreign film is almost like filming an original script. The original film was Israeli-specific, featuring Israeli characters and actors in a scenario that is specific to Israeli history. But despite that, the film has a universal appeal.

Directed by Academy Award Nominee John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Killshot) who has nothing to do with football, not even the European kind, The Debt is a movie about the cost of living with a lie and the toll it takes on you. It is part spy-thriller, part drama, but the film holds together thanks mainly to the solid pacing, and the work of the two main actresses, Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain, who play the same character in different periods of her life. There are issues with the film, but there are plenty of pros too.

Old wounds and new

The Debt takes place in two time periods, and the film cuts back and forth between them throughout. The movie begins in Israel in the late 90s, when a book chronicling the daring mission to apprehend a Nazi war criminal in East Berlin is released. The author is the daughter of two of the three principle members of the Israeli Mossad that completed the task and became heroes. With her now estranged mother Rachel (Mirren) and father Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) in attendance at the author’s book unveiling, the third member, David (Ciaran Hinds) returns to Israel and dies just before.

But something about the recounting of the mission is off. Over the years, the secret has been buried as each member deals with the sudden fame in their own ways, but the truth has a way of coming back to haunt people.

THE DEBT

The film then takes us back to East Berlin in 1965, as a young Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stefan (Martin Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) attempt to find, apprehend and transport Dieter Vogel — a Nazi doctor who performed monstrous experiments on human subjects in concentration camps during the war — back to Israel for trial. The three soon find Vogel, but the hard part is getting him out of the country. The first step is to take him and hold him captive in their apartment. The hours turn into days, and the toll on both prisoner and captive becomes apparent.

Decades later, the mission comes back to haunt all three members, especially Rachel, who is forced to confront the past and act to protect her family.

While there are a few solid action moments in this film, the real focus is on the characters, and their reactions to the situations they find themselves in, both in the past and the 90s. To further complicate matters, a love triangle forms when David and Rachel first meet and have feelings for each other.

When the movie presents itself as a spy thriller, it works. The mission to Berlin, the capture of Vogel and the tense period of captivity are all well filmed, as is the subsequent proverbial “other shoe dropping,” when you know the secret and the consequences it causes. The love triangle, on the other hand, is a bit more meh.

The film tries to force the romantic tale into relevance, but it just never works. The problem is partly due to the characterizations of David and Rachel — both are interesting individually, but together they just lack much spark and never really make sense. More than that, the love angle just seems like a prop to add some emotional weight at the end. It isn’t a bad love story, it just isn’t really all that necessary either, as if it were shoved into the film because it is expected.

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The big secret is also a bit of an issue. While I will keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, it is fairly obvious from about 15 seconds in. The twist that sets up the final act is also telegraphed from a million miles away. The combined thud of the love story and the un-mysterious mystery stop The Debt from ever really taking off. That doesn’t mean it is a bad film, it just fails to live up to its potential. At times it feels as if the film expects to be an Oscar contender, but forgot a few steps necessary to reach that goal. The spy-thriller angle and strong performances make up for most of the film’s shortcoming though. Not all, but most.

The new guard and the old

Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds and Helen Mirren are all at the top of their games. All three are consistently impressive, and The Debt is no exception. Of the three though, Mirren is far and away the star, both by the design of the plot, and just because her character is the most fleshed out of the three, which helps make her stand out to begin with.

Wilkinson is also solid, but his role is more of a foil to Mirren’s Rachel, and a means to propel the plot than anything. Without his character, the story would not have been possible, and once he fulfills his plot-specific destiny, he fades away and Mirren takes over totally. Hinds is in the most difficult of positions of the three actors. He has the least amount of screen time of the three, and while his character has what may be the most interesting reaction to the consequences of the secret, he is also the least explored in both the past and later time settings. As with Wilkinson’s Stefan, Hinds’ character of David is there mainly to help push Mirren’s Rachel along to where she needs to be. 

THE DEBT

The earlier time setting features the same characters, but all at different parts in their lives, with notably different personalities. Pairing two actors to play the same role in two distinct eras must have been a hair-pullingly difficult task, but the filmmakers nailed it.

Of the three, the focus is primarily on Chastain. Csokas is the loudest and Worthington is the most mysterious, but Chastain’s character of Rachel is the focus of the film, just as Mirren’s Rachel is. While the later time period is far more character driven, the earlier story begins as a spy-thriller and is dominated by the tone and setting. It moves along quickly, which allows the plot to overshadow the actors — at first. When the tone changes, and the agents are faced with the prospect of imprisoning a monster, it becomes much more psychological in nature. The early characters are deliberately less developed than their later counterparts, but all three turn in solid performances.

Conclusion

The Debt is a slightly subdued film, that just doesn’t always work like it should. The performances propel the film, and about half of the plot is good, so on average there is more to like than dislike.

The biggest issues stem from the unnecessary love triangle that seems designed only to create a sounding board for the characters’ emotional finale. It never really carries much weight as it is played out on film, but the ramifications are necessary, and do help the story later on. But it, like several parts of the film, just feels flat, forced and shoved in. The big secret is also poorly handled. 

These are small portions of an overall good movie, supported by strong performances across the board, especially by Mirren. The Nazi hunter plot is well done and leads to good amounts of tension, as does the later resolution set decades in the future.

Not every element of The Debt succeeds, but more than enough of it works well enough to make it an enjoyable movie. It has several missed opportunities, but overall it is worth the admission price. And please note that I managed to make it through this entire review without once making a pun, like “this is a debt worth paying.” You are welcome.

{The Debt is rated R, and has a running time of 104 minutes}