review by Peter Lewis
Thrillers exist to titillate and confound. They serve as a gripping reminder of the possibilities couched within seemingly serene realities, but just out of reach of our day to day life. And when effective, there is nothing quite as gripping for a viewer. With its twists and frightening turns, “The Debt” comes damn close to that elevated realm.
The movie is a remake of a lauded Israeli film of the same (English) name. This film never made it past the festival circuit here in the states, but the Miramax backed remake was the beneficiary of a stylized Hollywood overhaul.
Directed by John Madden (think Shakespeare in Love, not tough actin' tinactin), “The Debt” stars a trio of Israeli secret agents tasked with kidnapping a sadistic Nazi doctor out of communist controlled East Berlin circa 1966 and returning him to Israel to stand trial.
It sets up as a pretty straight forward spy thriller: agents infiltrate East Berlin, assess a target, enact daring plan, escape to safety and bring the bad guy to justice. But like any thriller worth its salt, “The Debt” is a bit more subtle than that, weaving its tale through a series of flashbacks from present day (1997) Israel. In doing so, the movie unfurls a larger story, one of ideals and sacrifices.
Rachel, played wonderfully by both Helen Mirren (present) and Jessica Chastain (past), is the “in” for capturing the so-called surgeon of Birkenau. The war criminal has fallen into a life of normalcy in East Berlin as a specialist in gynecology. In order to ascertain a valid identification, Rachel endures a gynecological examine in order to covertly snap photos of the doctor. Unnecessary in reality? Perhaps, but the filmmakers chose this for a reason: it's disturbing and uncomfortable beyond words, especially so for a daughter of World War II.
These tropes are peppered throughout the film, but they are handled well. Never coming at the cost of the larger narrative. This is in large part due to the admirable acting of both the “past” and “present” protagonists. Chastain is not only beautiful, but undeniable in her steely vulnerabilities. Mirren, her counterpart as the present Rachel is an absolute gem. Her performance evokes the graceful, but hardened edge of a woman crosswise with her past, both remorseful and resolute.
Opposite that pair is Marton Csokas as Stephan, the unit's commander. His place among the trio of operatives is one of power, but he seems to exercise it with a muted, almost sadistic pleasure. Pulling it out as a trump card when it is most harmful to those around him. And those vain, vengeful characteristics spill into old age wonderfully thanks to Tom Wilkinson.
Filling out the (younger) trio is Sam Worthington as the young, determined WWII orphan. Much of Worthington's career has been a bit of a disappoint (at least in my eyes), but this A-List actor has finally turned in a laudable performance. Ciaran Hinds plays Worthington's aged counterpart with an inimitable sadness, but I found myself wondering if they were the same person. Hinds is far to reminiscent of the young, scheming Stephan.
And the object of their mission, the famed surgeon of Birkenau? He is played by Jesper Christensen, a veteran Danish actor. His task — bringing both humanity and sadism alive — was far from easy, yet he, more than any other actor within the film, was truly transcendent. His performance illuminated the nasty, devilishness that resides beneath the surface within us. Yet, it also captured a perceptiveness only possessed by those that understand humanity. It's this balancing act, weaving one way and the next, that was truly frightening and caused such visceral consternation: how can such a divide live within one person?
This plurality of spirit elevates “The Debt.” The devotion toward the humanity and its tangled web extends The Debt far beyond the norm. It dares to explore the cacophonous emotions brought on by such a lonely, dangerous mission. That extension beyond the action and into the mindsets of each character solidifies the movie as something larger than mere thriller. It pushes it toward great cinema.
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