Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Worthington, Ciaran Hinds, Jesper Christensen, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas
Based upon Ha-Hov by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum; Screenplay by Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn and Peter Straughn
It has been quite some time since a film such as The Debt has hit the wide release theatrical circuit, a film with a decidedly retro feeling and a rather remarkable devotion to character and story rather than the all too frequently utilized technical wizardry and special effects found in most contemporary spy thrillers.
Directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), is a classic cold war era spy thriller adapted from a 2007 Israeli film called Ha-Hov. While Madden directed the Academy Award-winning Shakespeare in Love, it's also important to note that he directed the relatively unimpressive flicks Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Proof. The Debt isn't really so much a director's film as it is an actor's film, and the film's ensemble cast takes a compelling story and turns it into an involving, exciting and truly fascinating film that follows three individuals played by two different actors thirty years apart.
The film opens in 1997 as three former Israeli secret service agents, Rachel (Helen Mirren), Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) and David (Ciaran Hinds), are being celebrated for their work thirty years earlier in apprehending a Nazi war criminal (Jesper Christensen), who is eventually killed in the course of the action. Rachel and Stephan receive their accolades with a sense of quiet acceptance, while David's reaction is anything but acceptance.
The Debt flips back to thirty years earlier and Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) are captured in the planning and execution of their mission. We quickly learn the reason for David's surprising response, but we also gain insight into how these characters have evolved over the years.
The near mastery of The Debt, with some credit due to Madden but most to the film's actors, is in just how vividly and cohesively the lives of these three people are captured over the thirty years. While these characters are played by two different people, they feel like two parts that equal entire beings. If ever a cast would be worthy of an ensemble performance award, it would be for this film as these characters as they move from vibrant, disciplined and inspired secret agents to weathered human beings weighted down by too many years with too many secrets.
The scenes in mid-60's Berlin are taut and captivating, our trio tasked with capturing a Nazi war criminal known as the Surgeon of Birkenau for trial in Israel. These scenes, in which our younger trio are first hunting for their prey then engaged in psychological games with him, are among the film's most captivating despite Madden's occasionally slow edit and tendency to drag out a scene beyond its point of impact.
Jessica Chastain, who seemed to spring out from nowhere in Terence Malick's The Tree of Life, confirms her presence as one of Hollywood's up-and-coming young actresses here with a performance that is simultaneously bold and brave and vulnerable and electrifying. Chastain's chemistry with Marton Csokas, the film's real revelation, is quietly simmering and Csokas carries his scenes with a sort of likable, good guy arrogance that you would expect from a young agent. Sam Worthington, from Avatar and Clash of the Titans, exudes the type of humanity that makes everything his character does seem utterly authentic and real.
This is yet another terrific performance, as well, for the always on her game Helen Mirren. While Mirren and Chastain bear almost no resemblance, their performances are so cohesive that somehow it all works. Mirren looks and feels like a woman who has been carrying around the weight of her soul for 30 years, and yet you're never quite sure exactly what's going to give. Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds are also top notch.
Beyond the terrific performance of Csokas, The Debt's real other find may be that of Jesper Christensen, who is utterly mesmerizing as the former Nazi Dieter Vogel. Christensen, a veteran actor with mostly Danish and European credits, may be known to some from the Nicole Kidman vehicle The Interpreter or in the James Bond films Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace, where he played Mr.White.
There are times that The Debt looks a tad familiar, with obvious nods to Hitchcock and Bertolucci playing out among others. Madden is certainly no master of suspense-building filmmaking, especially where pacing is concerned, but he does seem to understand what makes this script work and thankfully avoids techno gimmicks and special effects to sell the film. Instead, quite refreshingly, The Debt takes an involving story and places it squarely in the hands of its quite able cast. The final result is an old school spy thriller with anxiety-inducing chase scenes, bold characterizations, genuine relationships and a suspense that only slightly lets go with a slightly less than satisfying ending that doesn't fully capitalize on the complexity of the suspenseful and morally ambiguous journey that has unfolded.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic