Movie Review: The Debt
The Charlotte Observer
Worthwhile movies come out during the last week of August as often as giant tortoises mate. This dead zone is one of three during the year – the others are the first two weeks of January and the last week of April – when distributors unload obvious bombs, movies they don’t know how to market or projects that have lain dormant in the attic for so long they’re beginning to smell.
On rare occasions, a film of high quality emerges from the darkness, surprising the studio that forgot about it as much as viewers who risk $10 on it. “The Debt” is one of those.
Director John Madden last made a movie people cared about in 1999, when he earned an Oscar nomination for “Shakespeare in Love,” but he knows how to pace suspense.
Writers Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan adapted an obscure Israeli film, the 2007 “Ha-Hov,” but its premise is universal.
Most of the stars may be unknown (Jessica Chastain, Martin Csokas) or in the wrong demographic to appeal to action-movie fans (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson), but their faces do hold the screen.
And so a small gem, stuck on the shelf for more than a year, pops out in the days of summer usually associated with dogs.
It takes place in two decades: The 1960s, when young Israeli secret service agents try to bring a Nazi war criminal back to Israel for a trial, and the 1990s, when the results of their botched efforts begin to catch up with them publicly.
We start in 1997, when retired Mossad agent Rachel Singer (Mirren) rides a wave of popularity inspired by a book about her adventures. Rachel’s ex-husband, highly placed Stephan Gold (Wilkinson), warns her that long-missing colleague David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds) has walked out of the past with a guilty conscience.
Now we cut back to 1965, when Rachel, David and Stephan (Chastain, Sam Worthington and Csokas) track down a surgeon (Jesper Christensen) who experimented on Jews in the Birkenau death camp and is now a gynecologist in an East Berlin hospital.
The writers fail to explain why failure would shame this young trio and their nation; I assumed this was supposed to be one of the Israeli government’s first attempts to find a war criminal, and its prestige as a nation just 17 years old must be on the line. (Although real Mossad agents had already ferreted out Adolf Eichmann in 1961, when he was living in Argentina.)
Yet the filmmakers adroitly skip back and forth between taut action sequences and metaphysical dilemmas. We can take as much satisfaction in a nail-biting attempt to deceive border guards as in the monologues where the older Rachel wrestles with her reawakened conscience. The script makes only one mistake: A spurious coincidence alters the ending in a way that does the story no good. (Perhaps it tested better with preview audiences. If so, maybe re-shoots delayed the release.)
For once, producers cast younger people who look like three decades of care and danger could turn them into the older versions of themselves.
Chastain, who’s getting a burst of fame this summer with “The Help” and “The Tree of Life,” has a wary intelligence that carries over into Mirren’s behavior. Csokas not only looks like Wilkinson but has his anxiety and shrewdness. Only Sam Worthington, who delivers the same dully earnest performance he did in “Avatar” and “Clash of the Titans,” seems weightless and stodgy.
Madden has the wisdom to give most of the heavy emotional lifting to Mirren, who continues to shine at the age of 66. Oddly, this makes the eighth outing in the last 10 years where her characters have caused someone to die: Mirren will not go gentle into that good night of obscurity that claims most actors her age.