In 1965, three Mossad agents – Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas), and David Peretz (Sam Worthington) – are in East Germany with one objective: Abduct Doktor Bernhardt (Jesper Christensen), a gynecologist/infertility specialist who is actually a Nazi war criminal named Dieter Vogel a.k.a. the Butcher of Birkenau, and take him back to Israel so he can stand trial. To get close to him, Rachel becomes his patient, claiming that after two years of marriage, supposedly to David, she still can’t conceive. She undergoes a physical exam and a shot, probably of hormones. During her second visit, and with her legs in the stirrups, she makes her move, stabbing him in the neck with a needle. Knocked out, he is transported by David and Stephan in an ambulance to the border. But then everything goes wrong, and the three agents are stuck taking care of a hostile prisoner. After a violent confrontation with David, Vogel picks up a shard of broken bowl and frees himself. Then he attacks Rachel, beating her severely, and escapes. Compelled by the memory of her mother’s death during World War II, Rachel uses whatever energy she can muster to drag herself to the stairs and shoot Vogel. Well, at least that’s one version of the story. What really happened that night in East Germany? You will just have to watch The Debt, which itself is a remake of the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov.
From the DVD cover, you might think that Helen Mirren is the “star” of The Debt, but that’s not entirely accurate. Although she is in the film – she plays Rachel in 1997 – the person who has the most screen time is Chastain. Most of the film’s action takes place during the 1960s, but when it is in the “present,” Tom Wilkinson plays the now wheelchair bound Stephan, and Ciaran Hinds, in essentially a cameo performance, plays the troubled David. I’m not complaining – The three younger actors do a wonderful job – I just want to let everyone know how it is, because I was under the impression that this was Mirren’s film. And if you are seeing it for her, prepare yourself for disappointment. But you won’t be disappointed, because this is a very good political thriller.
This adaptation is written by some pretty heavy hitters. Peter Straughan adapted The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) and contributed to the upcoming Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). Jane Goldman contributed to Stardust (2007), Kick-Ass (2010), X-Men: First Class, and the upcoming The Woman in Black (2012). And Matthew Vaughn, who frequently steps behind the camera, helped with the screenplays for Stardust, Kick-Ass, and X-Men: First Class. I’ve enjoyed all of the aforementioned films, and I really enjoyed The Debt. It’s a very human story about people doing what they think is right at the time, and then having to face the consequences many years later. How do they correct their past errors? Can they?
In many ways, The Debt reminded me of another one of my favorites: Steven Spielberg’s underappreciated Munich (2005). For one thing, both films focus on “ordinary people” who are called upon to do some pretty extraordinary things. These characters aren’t superheroes or extraordinary spies. This isn’t Bourne or James Bond. These people are real and relatable, so while watching them we wonder “what would I do under this situation?” Both films also should start a conversation about retribution, forgiveness, and moral responsibility. What should be done with war criminals after many decades? Kill them? Put them on trial? What are our real motives in choosing either option? For me, that’s the real question. And can justice ever really be served?
For those who don’t like “heavy” philosophical discussion, The Debt has a romance at its core; however, it’s a complex, not very happy one. These characters have a lot of regrets, and that’s great for creating conflict. The characters themselves are really interesting. David is a brooding, Holocaust survivor who thinks he believes in justice and truth. He’s an emotional wreck; very damaged. Actually very Heathcliff. (I liked him a lot.) Stephan is attractive, charming, practical and straight forward; an ambitious man unencumbered by morality. Rachel is caught in the middle. She’s fearful but strong; and, like Stephan, chooses her head over her heart. Overall, I found them pretty fascinating.
The “older” actors don’t really look like they could be the younger ones in 30 years, but everyone’s performance is so good, you can overlook that fact. Chastain is a relative newcomer to Hollywood, but she’s a star in the making. And she deserves a big career, because not only is she gorgeous but she’s also tremendously talented. This year, I saw her in Take Shelter, The Debt, The Help, and The Tree of Life, and wow, is this woman capable of versatility. In the first, she plays a lower income woman dealing with the emotional turmoil of having a deaf child and a husband who is slowly going insane. (Or is he?) In the second, she’s a Mossad agent, trained in combat. In the third, she’s a Marilyn Monroesque Southern belle who married into money. Because of this, she’s the town pariah. And in the fourth, she’s an Earthy mother of two boys and the wife of an oppressive, regret-filled man. I can’t imagine ANY other actress at her age – she’s 30 – pulling off all of these roles as well as she does. (Her only real competition might come from Natalie Portman, but I don’t see Portman capable of doing ditzy sex bomb with any conviction.) Consider me a fan of this Julliard graduate. (Next up, she’ll play Salome in Al Pacino’s Wilde Salome.)
Worthington takes a lot of hits from haters, but I like the Australian actor a lot. He’s a good at action, and he some dramatic chops. His David is sweet but very secretive. There is a lot going on behind his eyes. Csokas, also Australian and looking a bit like a slender Russell Crowe, is another one of my favorites, but for some reason he tends to get cast as the bad guy in a lot of horrible films, e.g. xXx (2002), Timeline (2003), and Aeon Flux (2005). If you doubt he’s a great actor, see him in Asylum (2005). That film made me a fan for life. He’s also pretty good in The Debt.
Hinds doesn’t stick around long enough to evaluate; Wilkinson, too, has a pretty small role. So, it’s on to Mirren, who, let’s face it, can’t do anything wrong in my eyes. She’s another actress who has enviable range. She can be sexy and seductive one minute, and tough and commanding the next. This is a woman who, in recent years, has played royalty – Queen Elizabeth I (Elizabeth I) and her frumpier relative Queen Elizabeth II (The Queen) – a tough-as-nails detective superintendant (Prime Suspect); a whorehouse madam (Love Ranch); a psychotic, power crazed owl (Legend of the Guardians); a butler (Arthur); Propero as a female (The Tempest); and a retired assassin (Red). May this woman never retire. I shouldn’t forget to mention Danish actor, Christensen. He’s a fantastic villain; a guy you want to see beaten and shot. And he reminds us that Christoph Waltz isn’t the ONLY European actor capable of inspiring such hatred.
Watching The Debt made me want to see the Israeli version, but, of course, it is unavailable for rental. Maybe I’ll just pull out my copy of Munich and watch it again. I think that if you have the emotional constitution for the experience, Munich and The Debt would make a wonderful back-to-back double feature. Just be prepared to stay up all night thinking and thinking some more.
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