By Don Simpson | August 31, 2011
Director: John Madden
Writers: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Peter Straughan, Assaf Bernstein (Ha-Hov), Ido Rosenblum (Ha-Hov)
Starring: Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Tom Wilkinson, Marton Csokas, Ciarán Hinds, Sam Worthington, Romi Aboulafia, Jesper Christensen
Based on Assaf Bernstein’s 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov, John Madden’s English-language remake — The Debt — intelligently comments on the creation of political heroes and myths, all the while discussing the existential turmoil caused by having to live with a lie. But, opting for Oscar fodder over substance, The Debt attempts to traverse — superficially, at best — such emotionally heavy subjects as responsibility, guilt, sacrifice, revenge and regret.
David, Stefan and Rachel’s personal histories are so entrenched in the history of Israel that they will never be able to escape their past for as long as they live. Israel recognizes them as political heroes and there is no turning their backs on that. The truth could easily destroy a government as young and fragile as that of Israel.
The narrative structure of The Debt forever hinders the effectiveness of the film’s message. Jumping back and forth in time between East Berlin circa 1965-1966 and Israel circa 1997, The Debt attempts to intertwine the past and present lives of three Israeli Mossad agents — David, Stefan and Rachel. This cross-cutting quickly becomes confusing because young David (Sam Worthington) looks absolutely nothing like old David (Ciaran Hinds); the same goes for young Stefan (Marton Csokas) and old Stefan (Tom Wilkinson). At least young Rachel (Jessica Chastain) and old Rachel (Helen Mirren) share a facial scar to bind their character’s past and present together…
Even though a key plot twist is revealed way too early to be effective, I will still refrain from discussing the narrative of The Debt. But I will say that besides the lack of continuity in the actors’ physical appearances — and accents for that matter — an all too heavy-handed love triangle serves to only work as a purposeful narrative device to lead to the inevitable conclusion of the Mossad agents’ incarceration of Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a.k.a. the Butcher of Birkenau.
Despite my criticisms, The Debt is a gritty political thriller that is lusciously drained of any color or life by cinematographer Ben Davis and the fight scenes are choreographed with chilling intensity. Chastain and Mirren are both impressive in their empowering characterizations of Rachel while Christensen is as dastardly and swarmy as any silver screen characterization of a Nazi.