The Debt

3 Oct

Title: The Debt
Year: 
2011
Director: 
John Madden
Writers: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, based on the 2007 Israeli film written by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum
Starring: 
Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, Marton Csokas, Jesper Christensen
MPAA Rating: 
R, some violence and language
Runtime: 
113 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
7.2
Rotten Tomatoes: 
78%

The talent that assembled for The Debt was enough to get me excited about it, the director is John Madden, who directed Shakespeare in Love which I love; the screenplay, based on an Israeli film, was done by Peter Staughan, who did The Men Who Stare at Goats as well as the much-hyped upcoming adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and by writer/director Matthew Vaughn and his usual writing partner Jane Goldman, who together have written the scripts for Mr. Vaughn’s amazing Stardust and Kick-Ass, as well as the one for his superhero entry, this year’s X-Men: First Class, which I have still to see. And the on-screen talent included proven veterans like Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds, as well as up-and-comers like Sam Worthington and the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, who’s having the most unbelievable year thanks to her turns in the masterpiece that was The Tree of Life, the crowd-pleaser The Help, this film, and the upcoming Coriolanus, Take Shelter and Wilde Salome (yes, she’s in every other awesome-looking film this year). So yes, I was psyched about The Debt.

And it really ended up being a fantastic film, one of the most solid entries in this sort of genre I’ve seen in a while, just very smartly-written and terrifically acted by the amazing cast, this gets to be just a very taut and successful spy thriller, the likes of which we really need more of nowadays. It was just an amazingly well crafted film, and through its many twists and turns you have Ms. Mirren or Ms. Chastain there to guide you through its intricate plot structure which uses a time-shifting narrative in a way I thought was just very neat as we get a decades-spanning espionage story dealing with an Israeli-Nazi score settling. In that way we get a film that’s very interested in how the truths of the past can be either amped up or dialed down by the situations of the present, and delves into the psychological and ethical complexities that many times lie within a person that has been presented as a hero.

And so Mr. Madden takes us through a story that shifts between a dark apartment in East Berlin in the mid-sixties and the bright city of Tel Aviv over three decades after that. And what we get is great, as we see the story of Mossad secret agent Rachel Singer, portrayed by Ms. Chastain during the bits set in the past and by Ms. Mirren in the present-day ones. It’s her story that drives this film the most, the one that has the key to all of the problems it poses, but it’s also the rest of the amazing cast that serve up a story full of deception that will really leave you eager to follow this one through its intricate maze. What happens is that the what happened in that Cold War-era Berlin made heroes of the three Mossad agents that were there to capture a Nazi fugitive, and three decades later the daughter of Singer and her ex-husband Stephan Gold, who was also part of the heroic trio, has written a book about their exploits, making her mother seem like some sort of courageous woman who did what had to be done in times of extreme pressure.

At the launch party for said book we see Rachel as played by Ms. Mirren sporting a grim that shows that her memories about the time that cemented her as a hero aren’t precisely something she really likes to think back upon all that much. And so the film starts hinting at all sorts of mysteries and elements of intrigue that it effectively starts developing through flashbacks that give us insight into the real story, and when the third member of the team, David, arrives, we get a hint that there’s much more to what meets the eye, and we go backwards and then forwards again, learning more and more about the secrets that abound in this story and the consequences these have had in the people involved.

I won’t spoil some of the flashbacks or the twists, that’s for you to experience when you go see The Debt, just rest assured that even though some of the turns this one takes are super ambitious, they’re always executed to perfection by a cast and crew that are tremendously skilled at what they do, with Mr. Madden keeping both timelines moving like crazy at a great pace going forward to their inevitable and climatic clash, with a cinematography by Ben Davis (who also did Kick-Ass and Stardust for Mr. Vaughn) that’s beautiful and with a cast full of people that are just amazing. I mean, seriously, Ms. Chastain and Ms. Mirren at times actually seem like they’re playing different characters and not the same person, and even though that can be problematic, it doesn’t take away from the individual achievements of their specific performances, Ms. Mirren playing a more stoic version of a character that’s played by Ms. Chaistain as someone with a bit more pizzaz in a way. Ms. Chastain, by the way, deserves every good thing that’s being said about her in this, her stunning breakout year, she’s the real thing.

I really recommend The Debt, it’s not some sort of masterful espionage thriller, but it has a lot of outstanding elements that were wonderfully created. The whole moody and dark sort of approach at the themes of guilt and the ambiguity that can be found in the morality of this tale are really good. And it’s not just about that, as this film cranks up the adrenaline more than a few times and delivers action sequences that are masterfully choreographed and really makes the action parts of it match the intellectual qualities it possesses. I do believe, however, and this is pretty much the only considerable problem I had with the film, that by paying too much attention to all of these clever twists it gave us, it sort of bypassed a lot of the juicy political and emotional stories it could have delved further into. And that’s a problem for me, especially considering it had the cast that it had, because, no matter how clever and entertaining this was, it could have been more.

Grade: B+

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