(This review was originally published on August 31, 2011 at The Rogers Revue)
Oftentimes when thrillers attempt to weave the realism of a historically relevant era into their plot, they get wrapped up in the mechanics of what the characters are doing instead of the characters themselves. “The Debt”, John Madden’s re-imagining of the 2007 Israeli thriller “Ha-Hov”, does precisely the opposite. Communicating its intentions through emotional complexities, raw tension and the organic feel of its environment, “The Debt” accomplishes something a little different – it allows us to sympathize with the spies.
Three young Mossad agents are tasked with extracting a monstrous war criminal from East Berlin in 1965 to face trial in Israel. The target is a Nazi concentration camp doctor infamous for committing unspeakable crimes against humanity, a man known as the Surgeon of Birkenau. The intel says that he is in hiding under an assumed name as an obstetrician; their mission is simply to identify him and bring him to justice. But the plan is compromised by circumstance, and they are presented with a choice: to fabricate a story or face the consequences of a failed assignment. Thirty years later, the estranged members of the unit are decorated heroes – but fatefully reunited to deal with the repercussions of their decisions.
Developed by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and co-writer Peter Straughan, “The Debt” ties together a potent story that draws from the horrors of post World War II reality, the simplicity of pre Ludlum film adaptations and the consequences of manipulating one’s own morals, a quality that is rarely brought to light in so-called ‘genre’ films. Madden brings his grasp of emotional conflict to another level – mind you, the intensity is mostly in the quiet moments, and the dark textures dictate the feel of the movie – but he tackles the material without breaching extremes, balancing the obvious horrific elements of its central theme with an enlightening perspective on the threshold of the human psyche.
The cast is spot on, specifically Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren as Rachel, sharing the central role of the film as both the youngest member of the Mossad team and eventually a woman whose disposition has been corroded by decades of living a lie. Sam Worthington plays David, a haunted Holocaust survivor who is dead-set on bringing the criminal to justice, determined to have the world see him punished for what he’s done. The much less idealistic Stephan, the oldest member and leader of the team, is played by Marton Csokas, a calculating man whose confidence and drive gives way to frustration and anger over the course of the mission. Their counterparts in 1997, a well matched Ciaran Hinds to Worthington’s David and Tom Wilkinson as the older Stephan, have become men at opposite ends of the spectrum – the former played with heartbreaking desperation and the latter with apprehension and disdain.
“The Debt” develops on the terms of the actors at a pace that allows the believable characters to contend with some actual emotions. But what really separates the story from films that are categorized as ‘spy-thrillers’ is the treatment of the protagonists – highly trained operatives who display varying degrees of naivety, idealism, frustration and eventually weakness. Jesper Christensen plays the sadistic Dr. Vogel to a creepy calm that rivals anything of recent memory, magnified by our knowledge of his past; Chastain deals with a dichotomy of utter disgust and a determination to accomplish the mission with exhausting restraint as she visits the doctor under the guise of a new patient.
This film has the fundamentals of an espionage piece but the depth of a tragedy, combining psychological tension with a natural feel and is an unprocessed, non-formulaic exercise in storytelling, punctuating its intense scenes of suspense with action that is stripped of any sort of stylized sheen or genre dressing.
Without having to explain the motives of the characters, sidelining the politics and technical aspects of espionage in favor of a sort of visceral spice, “The Debt” works as a multi-tiered story; aside from a slightly choppy set up that introduces us to both ends of the films thirty-two year span, the transitions are well spaced and rather fluid. Madden maintains a connection between the characters in both decades without compromising the intensity of this very engaging film.