The Debt‘s release has been delayed for some time, mostly due to Miramax becoming defunct, but Focus Features is finally getting it out in time for the last holiday weekend before fall. It’s directed by Oscar-nominated John Madden, and stars Oscar-winning Helen Mirren and Oscar-nominated Tom Wilkinson, as well as current “It” actors, Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington. Is it worth a look? Yes, but it has its flaws.
The movie, a remake of the Israeli thriller Ha-Hov, opens in 1965 with a trio of Mossad agents, Rachel (Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas), and David (Worthington) returning to Israel after a mission to capture a Nazi war criminal called the Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen, with creepy menace). Then it cuts to the present, with an older Rachel (Mirren) at a publicity event for her daughter (Romi Aboulafi), a journalist who has written a book about her heroic mother. Rachel is asked to read a passage, during which we see a flashback of the events being described. Afterward, the audience applauds while Rachel looks uneasy. The film moves back to 1965 in East Berlin to show why.
Because the bulk of the action takes place in the past, the movie belongs more to the younger actors than the veterans. This is not a bad thing. Chastain gets to play Rachel in the more complex scenes—Mirren mostly just has to look conflicted—and she’s definitely up to the task. Though Chastain doesn’t look much like Mirren and comes across more delicate, there’s an intelligence and determination in her eyes that make her a believable agent. She also gives Rachel a vulnerability and quiet terror, which makes the agent on her first field assignment braver for doing what she does. Rachel gets out of tense situations more by keeping her wits about her than because she’s impossibly buffed up, though she does pull some effective physical maneuvers.
Csokas, a New Zealander, is charismatic as Stephan, the de facto leader of the trio. He doesn’t look like Wilkinson any more than Chastain resembles Mirren, but it’s good to see that the filmmakers were more concerned with getting good actors than being hung up on physical similarities. Worthington is adequate enough, as he is in Avatar and Clash of the Titans, but his emotional range is limited and his facial expressions look stilted.
The movie overall is a mixed bag, with Madden creating some incredibly suspenseful scenes, aided by composer Thomas Newman’s propulsive score, while letting others drag on too long after the “Cut!” point. Tighter editing would’ve ratcheted up the tension, which is also diluted by the fact we’ve seen these characters in 1997 so we know they survive the mission. But there are a couple of twists I didn’t see coming, and in the end, with its questions about whether the truth can do more harm than lies, at least it left me thinking, which is more than most summer movies manage to do.
Nerd verdict: Debt not a complete payoff but worth getting into
Photos: Laurie Sparham