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The Debt - Review

The Debt

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

THERE is much to admire in John Madden’s complex political thriller The Debt, a remake of little seen Israeli film Ha Hov, not least the leading performances of Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren.

Based on a script that was co-written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman (of Kick-Ass/X-Men: First Class fame) and Peter Straughan (of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Madden’s film poses intelligent questions about the nature of revenge and its ensuing emotions that comes wrapped in a still highly sensitive issue (namely, the persecution of the Jews during World War Two).

It isn’t without flaws (including a last act that strains credibility and some odd casting choices) but it’s never less than absorbing viewing based largely on the sterling work of its exceptional cast.

Split across two time periods, the bulk of the film takes place in Berlin in 1965 as a trio of Mossad agents – Stephan (Marton Csokas), David (Sam Worthington) and Rachel (Chastain) – are assigned to track down and capture a wanted Nazi war criminal (Jesper Christensen).

Although the mission ends with the death of the Nazi, the trio are hailed as national heroes and their exploits are celebrated in a new book published by Rachel’s daughter in the present day.

But as tensions among the elderly trio (now played, respectively, by Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds and Mirren) the truth about what really happened between them in Berlin begins to emerge.

Madden’s film works best the less you know about it but intricately layers in the key twists while providing a complex emotional backdrop upon which to allow its talented cast to perform.

The ‘60s scenes are particularly strong, especially once the trio has captured Christensen’s Nazi and is forced to lie low with him in a claustrophobic apartment, thereby allowing him to emotionally manipulate them in a bid to secure his own survival.

It’s during these scenes, too, that the sexual tension between the trio surfaces, providing a suitably simmering hot-pot of jealousy and betrayal that gives rise to some of the film’s latter revelations.

And it’s here that Chastain, in particular, gets the chance to shine, combining a steely determination and physical prowess befitting her Mossad agent with a vulnerability in line with her femininity.

Worthington, too, is better than previously seen in bigger budget movies, allowing subtle facial expressions to convey his troubled emotions, while Csokas is a bundle of nervous, wicked energy whose determination to succeed in the mission at all costs involves some dubious decision-making.

The film comes a little unstuck during the present day section, when Mirren, Wilkinson and Hinds take over, not least because of the distracting lack of physical resemblance between the men in particular. But some of the plotting also feels contrived, while a very late action sequence involving Mirren borders on the laughable – although to reveal why would be to give too much away.

That said, the performances remain good in their own right (from Mirren especially) and the resolution still poses some valid questions about the key themes of the film and the complexity of the issues at play.

Hence, while The Debt isn’t without flaws and lacks the overall subtlety and intelligence of Straughan’s own Tinker Tailor… screenplay, it is a smarter-than-average mainstream thriller that refuses to compromise on the emotional complexity of what’s at play.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 113mins
UK Release Date: September 30, 2011