Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain play a Mossad agent that has to come to terms with her actions in The Debt, John Madden’s (Shakespeare In Love, Mrs. Brown) latest piece of low-key drama. But unlike his earlier pieces that dealt with serious decisions people make in their day-to-day lives, The Debt deals with life-or-death decisions made in the hopes of settling a Debt that could never truly be repaid.
The Debt is a remake of the 2007 film of the same name, but with a star-studded cast, and probably a much higher budget. But the story is much the same; in 1997 Rachel Singer, a Mossad agent that has become famous in Israel for her part in the capture of “The Surgeon of Treblinka” in 1966 (with the help of fellow agents Stephan Gold and David Peretz) finds out that the “surgeon” is still alive. All those years ago, the three agents covered up the fact that the Nazi war criminal escaped their custody through a series of chance occurrences, and so Rachel, Stephan and David decide to give their country what it so desperately needs; a happy ending. The three come together to figure out what to do, and to come to terms with the lies they’ve told over the past several decades. But they come to discover that revenge never, ever has a happy ending.
Writers Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Snatch) and Jane Goldman (X-Men: First Class, The Woman in Black) keep the action and story flowing well, even though the film cuts from 1966 to 1997 and back again repeatedly. It’s a mystery that gradually unfolds, and the characters make the same mistakes no matter how many years go by. The question is, are they able to stop themselves and do what’s needed, instead of what they think should be done? Vaughn and Goldman’s writing, along with Madden’s direction and the brilliant acting by the stars of the show, keep the audience invested. What makes The Debt rise above the usual espionage thriller is the complicated love triangle between Rachel, Stephan and David, and how that plays in to their assignment, and their cover-up.
Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and CiarÃ¡n Hinds play the older versions of Rachel, Stephan and David, haunted by the choices they didn’t make, and the regrets they’ve taken with them through the decades. All three give amazing performances, as you’d expect from such well regarded actors. The real eye-opener is the way the younger actors, playing the 1966 versions, handle the task. Jessica Chastain (The Help, The Tree of Life), Marton Csokas (The Lord of the Rings) and Sam Worthington (Avatar) deliver stunning performances. The three play agents so full of their own belief in what’s right that they can’t see what actually needs to be done. These actors get down and dirty in their roles, and performances like these make me want to see what more they can do if they’re given an entire dramatic movie to run with, instead of bits and pieces (or B-level movies; I’m looking at you, Clash of the Titans). It’s easy enough to just kick back and enjoy performances by Mirren, Wilkinson and Hinds; you know you’ll be getting real quality. But from young stars like Chastain, Csokas and Worthington, it’s a breath of hope for the future. Keeping your eyes on the stars of the show will rob you of another brilliant performance here from Jesper Christensen, as the “Surgeon” himself. Christensen plays Doktor Bernhardt with a quiet menace; he’s the guy that lives on your street whose creepy past would shock you because he’s such a nice guy…*now*. When he’s found out, however, his low-key heartlessness is chilling.
As the movie unspools, viewers see how the decisions those young agents have twisted their lives in ways they had never imagined when they were young and ready to take on the world. The question for these three is, in order to make things right, must you stoop to the level of the truly evil? Or do you rise above? I can’t even imagine how exhausting it must have been to be a young Mossad agent in those first few decades after World War II, but The Debt paints a pretty good picture. The moral issues in the movie keep things intriguing, and the cast pulls off the sometimes unbelievable coincidences while maintaining credibility.