The Debt, an American remake based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, follows the story of three Israeli operatives set with the mission of apprehending a Nazi war criminal in East Berlin in 1966. Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stefan (Marton Csokas), and David (Sam Worthington) don’t know each other, but must now live together in one rundown apartment as they execute the plan to capture the man who once conducted the most horrible of medical “experiments” on Jewish captives, Dieter Vogel, the “Surgeon of Birkenau” (Jesper Christiansen). He’s now working under an assumed name as a gynecologist and fertility specialist, which is about the creepiest thing I can imagine.
In the “present,” which is 1997, Rachel (now played by Helen Mirren) and Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) have had a daughter, now grown and a journalist. She’s written a book about her parents’ mission and how they ultimately killed Vogel, which is launching with great fanfare. However, it’s obvious from the odd behavior of Rachel and Stefan at the book launch, and their references to David (Ciarán Hinds), that something more than the attention itself bothers them about the book—namely, that the mission those thirty years ago didn’t quite follow the narrative that has become the celebrated story. Flashing back and forth between the two timelines, we piece together the true sequence of events, and what must be done in the present to bring justice in line with the people’s beliefs.
The core of the film’s success relies on the chemistry between the three younger actors as they’re holed up in their apartment in East Berlin, Rachel and David pretending to be a married couple having trouble conceiving, and her visiting Vogel in his new guise. Especially once the plan hits a no-turning-back hitch, the tension requires these characters to keep high emotions under control. Though the script (adapted by Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan) could stand to devote a bit more time to how their relationships evolve in that pressure cooker of a situation, the actors sell the significant developments well, especially Chastain and Csokas. Worthington is fine, but can’t quite keep up with those two. I generally like Sam Worthington, but his physical attributes don’t necessarily match what he’s shown he can actually do with a role. He doesn’t always convince me of his seriousness, and I find myself wondering sometimes: “Sam, have you considered a nice romantic comedy?”
In casting the same character with two actors, it’s more important, in my opinion, that the actors give off the same vibe than that they look especially similar (within reason, of course). To play a young Helen Mirren can’t be an easy task, but Jessica Chastain does an admirable job and shows once again that her status as a rising star is warranted. I’ve only seen her here and in her extremely charming performance in The Help, but I’m already ready to call myself a fan. Marton Csokas—who seemed a new face for me even though I know I’ve seen films he’s been in—also impresses in his ability to emulate the formidable Wilkinson in voice and mannerisms. Without such solid actors on board, the film would not have held enough momentum to keep me as engaged as it did.
Director John Madden is probably best known for Shakespeare in Love, for which he received an Oscar nomination, in addition to the film’s infamous win for Best Picture. He does a serviceable job here, but the film does lag in places, particularly when we’re shown the same parts of the “past” timeline multiple times, to communicate the differences between the official story and what really happened. Things definitely enter “we get it” territory. Yet, despite these slower moments, I often didn’t want the film to flashback to the “present” timeline from the past. Madden and his cinematographer Ben Davis and editor Alexander Berner gave that world more depth and more tension that felt genuinely earned, rather than manufactured from cuts between characters who might run into each other, oh no!, a technique that’s relied upon far too heavily in the film’s climax.
Even with these snags, The Debt is a mostly competent drama/thriller, but its final message was a bit lost on me. The tone and the title of the film, along with some prominent dialogue from the characters, suggest a theme that revolves around duty to one’s country. I’m not sure in the end what stance the film takes on that topic, however. The ending feels more designed to be shocking than to answer that question, which is a shame, since that was the place to bring together all of the pieces we’re presented along the way. We’re left in a more muddled place than a truly good film would have left us. Still, for fans of the actors at work here, it’s worth seeing.
Final Grade: B-