The Debt: A Review

The Debt – Dir: John Madden; *ing: Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, Jesper Christensen, Ciarán Hinds

A dish best served Cold

Does it say anything pertinent about contemporary politics now that Cold War era thrillers seem to be making a comeback? That’s a discussion for another day but it’s certainly true that the stuff that John Le Carre’s dreams are made of is making its way back to the marquee in a big way, with big stars and big name directors. Here we have another cast of heavy hitters playing I spy, with Oscar-winning director Madden at the helm. Though, I daresay, one can imagine that in order to get the right mojo going for this project, the filmmaker might have channeled his days working on gritty TV fare like Inspector Morse and Prime Suspect, rather than his experience on more genteel stuff, like Shakespeare in Love and Mrs. Brown.  Indeed, he reunites with his Prime Suspect actor Mirren for this adaptation of the Israeli film Ha-Hov, about a trio of Mossad agents and their struggle with secrets and lies after an important mission goes horribly wrong.

The narrative shifts between 1997 and 1966 as we see how the earlier events effect the lives of Rachel (Mirren/Chastain), David (Hinds/Worthington), and Stephan (Wilkinson/Csokas), the three agents assigned the task of locating and abducting Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel a.k.a. the Surgeon of Birkenau (Christensen), for the purpose of extradition to Israel. Abduct him they do but things don’t go as planned and they are forced to sequester themselves in a small apartment with their captive, as their window for smuggling him out of East Germany grows ever smaller, and the bad doctor finds ways to drive a wedge between his captors. Left alone with Rachel one night, Vogel breaks loose and after injuring her, makes a run for it. As he reaches the exit, Rachel takes aim and fires. He falls dead.

Or does he?

This Rashomon-like rumination on the nature of truth is purportedly the nucleus of the film – is truth the same as fact, or dependent on who is stating it? How can one truth morph into quite another? And can a lie become a truth if enough people have conviction in it? It is also concerned with notions of guilt and redemption, as well as, of course, revenge and retribution. However, despite all these ideas bandied about, The Debt is a fairly simple film, certainly nowhere near as complex as some of its literary inspirations. In fact, it works much better as a straight up spy thriller than as heavy drama, partly due to the rather dull depiction of the latter day bookends. Thankfully, the back story forms the major part of the narrative and it is expertly staged, with the cool blues and greys of cinematographer Ben Davis’ palette providing an effective atmosphere of paranoia and dread. There are strong performances all round, from the veterans as well as the newbies, in particular Chastain and – surprise, surprise – Worthington who has taken his share of critical knocks for being little more than a nice piece of crumpet. Ignore the rather preposterous climax, and you have quite a neat package on your hands.

Cult: The Manchurian Candidate – John Frankenheimer’s chilling Cold War classic about the perils of brainwashing, and emasculating mothers.

Current: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Gary Oldman and Colin Firth headline a first-rate remake of the Le Carre novel.

Coming Attraction: Red Dawn – More fun with political paranoia in this update of the 1984 actioner about damn commies invading the US of A.



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