For serious lovers of cinema, there are few things more frustrating than a film with a solid premise and cast which has the potential to be fantastic but falters for whatever reason. This is the case with The Debt, a film which was supposed to be released in late 2010 but was shelved for almost a year before being released during 2011’s awards season. While the film, which is a remake of the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, begins as an incredibly mysterious and gripping thriller, the second and third acts buckle under the weight of everything the movie is trying to accomplish.
The film is set in 1997 but focuses on events which took place in 1966 and are shown in flashback. Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) is a former Mossad agent whose daughter, Sarah (Romi Aboulafia), has written a book about the secret mission in which she was involved as a young woman. Her ex-husband and Sarah’s father, Stephan (Tom Wilkinson), was also involved in the mission along with David (Ciaran Hinds) who has apparently been missing for years.
In 1966, Rachel (Jessica Chastain),is sent to Berlin to meet Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington). The mission, which is revealed to the audience very slowly, is for David and Rachel to pose as a young married couple who are trying to get pregnant in order to confirm the identity of the doctor who they believe is the Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen). Their plan is to kidnap Vogel and smuggle him out of Berlin so that he may stand trial for the atrocities he committed while working in the concentration camps.
The first 30-40 minutes of the film are fascinating to watch because we jump back and forth between the present and the past, never knowing if what we are seeing is the truth or one of the characters’ biased interpretation. The film begins to break down, though, a little over halfway through because the entire film takes on a completely different style and tone. Essentially, we are watching a completely different movie.
Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Proof) had the same problem with the well-cast Killshot which, though it wasn’t a wholly original idea, could have been so much better. Madden is not an action movie director, but for some reason in The Debt, he tries desperately to be one. The first act of the film is well-paced, filled with tension and mystery and convinces the audience that they are in for a hell of a ride. Madden then takes an absurd left turn and tries to pass off the rest of the film like one of the Bourne movies, which it certainly is not. It was working as a sparse and understated thriller. Why not leave it that way?
What saves the film are the performances. Mirren is terrific again, though her younger counterpart Chastain is the one we can’t take our eyes off of. Chastain, who is having an unbelievable year, pulls us in with her innocence and empathy which quickly turn to anger and regret. Out of the six films she appears in this year, she is likely to be nominated for an Oscar for at least one role and will potentially be competing against herself. It would not be unsurprising if this performance was one for which she received a nomination.
The performance most people will be talking about, though, is Christensen as the evil Nazi doctor who views Jews as vermin, never feeling even slightly guilty for what he did. The reason the performance is so disturbing is Christensen’s utter commitment to the fact that Vogel knows he is right and that what he was doing was not a crime, but a gift for the rest of humanity. It is doubtful there is anyone who won’t get chills from watching Vogel’s diatribes about his past.
Is the movie terrible? No, not at all. Again, it is incredibly entertaining at the outset which makes the rest of the film so frustrating. It is worth watching, but mainly for the performances and the underlying theme of the consequences of lying.
The film runs 114 minutes and is rated R.