The Debt is an American remake of a 2007 Israeli film. It was originally intended for release some time ago, but has been on hold, most probably due to Disney’s break with Miramax. It stars Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds as three ex-Mossad agents who are continually praised for their work in capturing a Nazi war criminal in the sixties. They are given medals and honoured as heroes. Mirren even has a book written about her by her daughter.
But, at the start of the film, one of our old agents, Ciaran Hinds’s character, kills himself. We then flash back to the past where the three leads are young, fresh Mossad agents, ready to capture the evil Nazi doctor and make him face trial for the terrible atrocities he caused. They are now played by Jessica Chaistain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington, respectively.
It is this part of the film that really goes beyond just good into the realms of the superb. The chemistry between the three young agents is fascinating, and the way their relationships with each other are played out is beautifully handled. The moral questions, particularly when the capture of the Nazi doctor goes wrong, of what one should do to bring justice to such an evil enemy are rightfully explored, but never in a too heavy-handed way.
Jessica Chastain, who has a lot more to do here than she did in The Tree of Life, is wonderful. I particularly liked her performance in ITV’s new adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express last Christmas, and here she really proves she is a talent worth watching. Sam Worthington also shows he can act rather well when the script requires it of him. Avatar and Clash of the Titans were hardly vehicles for acting talent, and here he proves he is not just a pretty face and really can sink into a difficult role. This film was actually made pre-Avatar, so it’s interesting to see him before James Cameron lobotomised him.
When the film flashes back to Israel in 1997, so Mirren and Wilkinson can deal with secrets from the mission leaking out into public knowledge, the whole things comes very close to falling apart. This final segment, which sees Mirren’s character go back undercover, feels patchy, unconvincing and the tension-control is all over the place. Lovely Helen, I’m sorry to say, did not convince me. I find it hard to say this, as I am a major Mirren fan, but at times I felt she was guilty of overacting, and the final scenes were robbed of the dramatic power they deserved.
I do think this is a film worth watching, and John Madden, who directed Shakespeare in Love, is a good filmmaker, and this is a fine, generally solid film. I just wish it could have been that little bit better.
The Debt, directed by John Madden, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures, Certificate 15.