Originally published at X-Media Online
Helen Mirren leads an all star cast in The Debt, a traditional thriller that manages to be a little more than just solidly entertaining, but ultimately concludes unsatisfactorily.
The story is an amalgamation of historical and cinematic influences, that jumps backwards and forwards in time. The villain, Dieter Vogel, is a cross between famous Nazis Adolf Eichmann, caught and tried in the 1960s, and Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death”, who evaded capture for his sick experiments on thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. Vogel is plausibly, powerfully and repulsively played by Jesper Christensen, already well versed on portraying baddies after his decent turns as Mr White in the last two James Bond films.
The action starts in Tel Aviv in 1997 at a book launch, before slipping back into 1960s East Berlin for most of the runtime. Despite the calibre of Tom Wilkinson, Helen Mirren and Ciaran Hinds, the modern day sections pale in comparison to the drama playing out at the symbolic epicentre of the Cold War. Largely this is down to the plot. Three young Mossad agents attempting to snatch a Nazi and smuggle him over the border is far more exciting than three golden oldies, even recognisable ones, bickering and looking over their shoulders for unveiled secrets.
However the younger performers must also take some credit for giving their narrative greater energy. Sam Worthington gives perhaps his best performance to date as David, a man robbed of his entire family by the war and who draws the short straw in the film’s love triangle. Marton Csokas is a convincing leader of the secret trio, oozing arrogance and then panic as their plans unravel. Best of all is the beautiful Jessica Chastain, who outshines Mirren as her older self. She gets the meatier scenes, physically in brutal fights and emotionally in the romantic subplot.
The Debt borrows heavily from countless Cold War espionage flicks as the Mossad operatives plan their kidnap. Whilst reasonably engrossing it’s after the scheme inevitably goes wrong that things step up a notch in quality. Determined to be better human beings than their prisoner the Jewish agents are forced to keep him alive at their safe house, providing him food and living alongside a monster that murdered and disfigured family members and friends. The most chilling aspect of Christensen’s performance is his familiarity; he has been living quite easily as an ordinary doctor.
Tensions escalate and obviously boil over, so that the spies return to Israel as heroes, but carrying a heavy burden of a secret. The Debt carries some considerable intellectual and emotive force by asking interesting questions about living a lie and the nature of justice in extreme circumstances. But the plot’s multiple strands fail to come together, perhaps because of a very unconvincing ending.
My rating: 3 stars out of 5