The Debt is directed by John Madden and is a remake of Assaf Bernstein’s 2007 film of the same name. It begins with retired Mossad agents Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stefan (Tom Wilkinson), in the year of 1997, receiving the bad news that their former colleague and friend, David (Ciaran Hinds), has committed suicide. We’re then transported back to the year 1966 to bear witness to Rachel, Stefan and David undertaking a secret mission to track down and capture a seemingly unrepentant Nazi war criminal Vogel (Jesper Christensen), nicknamed the “Surgeon of Birkenau.”
For their actions, the brave trio is revered for completing the dangerous mission that was fraught with complications. Rachel’s daughter has written a book chronicling what they achieved, but were they as successful as everyone is making it seem?
Although The Debt is based on a fictional event it remained sympathetic to the plot at all times, as if it were retelling true events. There are no big bangs and cheap thrills put in for the audience’s benefit — the story is sensitively and engagingly told. It should have, however, lingered longer in 1966; we spend much of the 114 minute running time with the main character’s younger selves (Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington) and this attachment doesn’t fully translate to their older personas. Also, once we had returned to the present day to see the drama play out, the tension kicks down a notch leading to an ending, that while pleasantly surprising, doesn’t quite live up to the suspense in the earlier part of the film.
An added layer to the plot was a very weird love triangle between the agents, although, truth be told, this was not necessarily a bad thing. Love is never as formulaic in real life as it’s often made out to be in the movies and The Debt offers a refreshing, (if not a little hard to understand at times) more realistic take on it. However, the love triangle felt unresolved at the end (which also, coincidentally, goes against the grain of Hollywood and its incessant need for happy resolved endings). Thankfully, the love story is not the driving force of the movie (more of a plot device) unlike so many other movies (e.g., “Titanic” where telling the story of the sinking ship served as the backdrop for the love story between the two main characters).
Yet, although I had an overall positive response to the film I found myself disappointed with the casting. Yes, it was a sensible choice to cast Mirren and Wilkinson, as they are consistently good and accomplished thespians. In a way though, it was this consistency that created a flaw in the film as their performances left no surprises for me — they always seem to be cast in the same sort of roles, so I knew exactly what to expect from their characters.
I would say that Worthington’s performance was the biggest disappointment of the film for me, but to be disappointed by something means you have to have expected something from it in the first place. Since he first became “popular” in “Avatar,” I’ve increasingly failed to understand his appeal. Unlike Mirren and Wilkinson he is definitely not type cast in the roles he is offered and yet he only ever seems to be able to pull off “Australian in a film.” (It only occurred to me half way through The Debt that he was actually attempting to do a different accent). I was also confused by the choice of Hinds to play the older David, as Hinds and Worthington couldn’t be more different.
Overall, The Debt is not a groundbreaking movie but with its high stake thrills and intrigue it’s definitely an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.