The Debt is a remake of the 2007 Israeli film and I have no idea whether it is very different or not, but the performances cannot be topped. Three Mossad agents kidnap a former Nazi death camp medical experimenter in 1965 East Berlin. In present 1997 Tel Aviv, they deal with the consequences of that mission, which did not turn out as they’d planned or as they later characterized it. Helen Mirren is the contemporary Israeli heroine idolized for her part in the operation, Tom Wilkinson is her estranged, disabled ex-husband who seems to be running the Israeli Intelligence Service, and Ciarán Hands is their former colleague, mysteriously reappeared, and the enigmatic embodiment of
their uneasy conscience. Jessica Chastain, Martin Csokas, and Sam Worthington play their younger selves. Mirren and Chastain are a pretty close match up even to their noses (quite a coincidence or make up/cinematography job) and both display a tough/vulnerable dichotomy that is the linchpin to the plot and the emotional texture of the story. Mirren speaks in three languages, Chastain in two, but there is a slight difference in their pronunciation of the ‘a’ in ‘can’t’. We’ve known Mirren as a powerhouse emotionally and physically, but Chastain is a revelation after the Marilyn Monroe Bus Stop type performance she gives in The Help. It’s also original that it’s the female character that is the action lead in both periods, though she is both ambivalent and tougher than the males.
She has a complex chemistry with Sam Worthington (yes, get them in another movie together pronto). He does not match up physically with Ciarán Hands exactly, but they both exude a deep morality and profound love for the character the two women play. Worthington can really act, which I wouldn’t have known after seeing his lead role in Avatar. Chastain is also electrifying with Jesper Christensen as her German OBGYN, who is also the former Nazi. Yes, he’s just as creepy as one could hope for because he is the embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ and gynecological scenes always make me squirm and, oh yes, then he starts up the mind games during the hostage sequence and it’s like something of Hitchcock. Wilkinson and Csokas actually match up the best because they’re able to play with the same physical gestures, though Wilkinson is in a wheelchair, and ‘the ends justify the means’ attitude of ambition. There were points when the film reminded me of Spielberg’s Munich, though this is fictional, rather than being based on fact, but it also gets at the almost vicious relentlessness of Mossad in tracking down enemies and Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others in the paranoia and dreariness of Europe behind the Iron Curtain.
It’s a movie well worth seeing and it points up the necessity of learning a second language as Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds so wittily did a couple of years ago. Knowing a second language can basically save your life. I don’t know if anyone will make a big deal about the many subtitles in this film since they didn’t in Tarantino’s. Probably they won’t because these are both thrillers, though Basterds was comic and cheeky, while deadly serious, and this is a romantic thriller that is also violently ethical. The time leaps are somewhat annoying at first because you want them to commit to one period or the other and you’re almost in a frustrated suspense waiting for the plot to start moving. Once it does, it ratchets up the action. Unlike Basterds, which seemed to breeze by in 160 minutes, this actually feels longer than it is and I think that may be because the central love/moral triangle is fascinating and director John Madden has the script and the gravitas to really focus on the actors and slow the action near its climaxes through close-ups and long mid shots of the main actors during silences. One other note: Thomas Newman’s music is splendid. It doesn’t sound like contemporary Hollywood music – it’s almost like a horror theme re-envisioned by an Italian film composer and that is meant as the highest compliment.