“The Debt” | a film review by Gary Chew
I’m not much of a formulaic kind of person, but let’s begin with a formula to keep the air clear about who is whom, and when… in “The Debt,” directed by John Madden of “Shakespeare in Love” fame.
Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson play middle-aged persons named Rachel Singer and Stephan Gold. Jessica Chastain and Marton Csokas play Rachel and Stephan in their mid 20s. Ciarán Hinds plays a middle-aged man called David Peretz. And Sam Worthington is David, in his 20s.
All six… or I should say, as far as the narrative goes, all three are Israeli Mossad secret agents in the 1960s. Later, in the 90s, they’re the same characters, looking back trying to work out something that went wrong during their mid-60s mission in East Berlin to kidnap and bring to public Israeli justice, a very evil fellow.
Kidnapping a devout Nazi working as an OB/GYN physician under an assumed name in Communist East Berlin presents several difficulties for these three Jews who, by the way, can kick ass big-time when they have to. They’re disciplined, well trained and full of passion to avenge, in the name of the Israeli state, what was done to Jews during World War II.
The Nazi is called Doktor Bernhardt, aka, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a fictitious character, who, during WWII, would’ve had much in common with the “good” Doktor Josef Mengele. Time periods in the film are woven like a fine tapestry you’d find on a rich, luxurious, antique chair. Metaphorically, the chair has spattered blood on it, and you’ll not be able rise from the chair till “The Debt” has been paid — so to speak — or, the film has run its course.
Matthew Vaughn, the director of two earlier films, “Kick Ass” and “Snatch,” team-wrote “The Debt” with Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan. Mr. Vaughn and Ms. Goldman also co-wrote “Kick Ass.”
“The Debt” is well-structured, smart and complex. Happily, as well, the affecting writing also possesses a really swell element: effective communication of the script’s complexities, sometimes in a very visceral manner. It has the excellent addition of not telegraphing what you won’t know or guess until seeing it. That’s why I give you this in, what might be, circumscribed language.
With Thomas Newman’s (“Six Feet Under,” “Angels in America“) nearly sublime and effective score—with inventive percussion, too — you get a first-rate, non-silly, edge-of-the-seat, serious, spy-surprise-action-thriller; especially so, as sexual-triangulating attraction, later on, begins mucking-up the hearts and minds of the three Mossad agents. This wrinkle brings it all down even closer to Rachel, Stephan and David as they confront the wily physician and, later, must sort out what decisions they make in their personal and family lives, as well as their conduct; all of which connect to finding closure in their public and private associations with the creepy Surgeon of Birkenau.
Lies are to be reckoned with.
What sticks out in this stand-out spy caper is the back and forth between Mirren’s Rachel and Chastain’s Rachel. (Obviously, there are no scenes shared by the two.) Both women have features that look plausibly the same for a character stretched across decades that bridge the so-well sewn together, almost, unrelenting action and suspense. (There’s the scar on Rachel’s right cheek.) Compared to the men, Mirren and Chastain carry a heavier load in the film with unsurprising, but astounding aplomb.
But, if there’s one complaint with “The Debt,” it’s in the casting of principal male actors. Ciarán Hinds (who plays the older David role) looks more like the younger actor, Marton Csokas (who plays the young Stephan). Hinds less resembles Worthington (who plays young David). Personally, I had to keep reminding myself of that. That said, though, there’s no one who doesn’t do a superb turn.
Jessica Chastain is evolving into a household screen name, appearing not long ago in “The Tree of Life;” and now, in the current and quite successful box office attraction, “The Help.” Chastain, I’d say, has qualities that have made Meryl Streep a lasting fixture in filmdom. Chastain is the only principal US actor in “The Debt.” She’s a Northern Californian, hailing from both the San Francisco and Sacramento environs.
Long ago, Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson distinguished themselves as extraordinary, as has Ciarán Hinds, especially in “There Will Be Blood.” Sam Worthington is well- known, too, being in the iconic blockbuster, “Avatar.”
Jesper Christensen (“Quantum of Solace“), as the notorious German doctor convinced of Jewish inferiority, makes skin crawl with his devotion to that absurd notion. He is such a good bad guy — the kind not unlike Hannibal Lector, but lacking the same appreciation Hannibal has shown for what makes a tasty meal.