Mark Reviews Movies

The Debt (2011)

THE DEBT (2011)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: John Madden

Cast: Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, Jesper Christensen, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds

MPAA Rating: R (for some violence and language)

Running Time: 1:54

Release Date: 8/31/11


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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 30, 2011

There are two focal points battling throughout the course of The Debt. One is the plot, which weaves back and forth between past and present (though mostly the past); the other is the characters, who spend the movie's segments set in the past attempting to actively confront history and the contemporary sections trying to run away from it, despite the fact that it keeps returning to haunt them. The thrusts of each, individual timeline are, as a result, at odds with each other. The effect is, ultimately, a melodramatic rendering of a potentially intriguing story, with the characters and their own story of remorse taking a backseat to an unnecessarily labyrinthine execution of the overarching story.

In the present (1997), Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) is attending a celebration of the publication of her daughter Sarah's (Romi Aboulafia) new book. It documents a mission from 1966 in which Mossad agents, including Rachel, captured and killed a Nazi fugitive hiding in plain sight in East Berlin. Also in attendance is Sarah's father Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson), another of the agents who participated in the operation 30 years ago. The third David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds) kills himself in front of Stephan on his way to the car that is meant to transport him to the reading.

As Rachel reads the critical passage of the mission, she vividly recalls the details—how she courageously crawled with pistol drawn after being viciously beaten to end the life of escaping runaway. The crowd applauds, but there's an emptiness in Sarah's reaction.

What follows is an extended flashback to the actions that led to the culminating episode, with a younger Sarah (Jessica Chastain) arriving in East Berlin to meet a younger David (Sam Worthington). At the apartment that is their safe house, she meets a younger Stephan (Marton Csokas), a much louder partner than the quiet, reserved David.

This is the bulk of the screenplay's character development, with the divergent personality types of David and Stephan and Rachel falling somewhere in the middle—determined and occasionally fearful. In place of solid characterizations, screenwriters Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan (adapting an Israeli movie of the same name from four years ago) set the trio up for a love triangle, as David watches amicably from the shadows (Stephan jokes about whether or not David enjoys the company of women until Rachel walks around in a towel after a bath) and Stephan takes a more forthright approach (He seduces her a tough day of spying with a drink and a piano). Director John Madden handles the romantic entanglements with such restraint that they barely register, let alone have any illuminating effect on our perception of the participants.

Much like their role in the assignment at hand, the three are merely tools of the plot, which is admittedly involving once Rachel begins to confront their target. He is Dr. Bernhardt (Jesper Christensen), better known to the three agents as Dieter Vogel and better known to history as the "Surgeon of Birkenau," who performed horrendous medical experimentation on prisoners of the concentration camp in Poland. When they find them, he is working as a gynecologist at a local clinic, and Rachel must battle her disgust for the man who winds up uncovering more personal information about her than she would care for him to know (Chastain, a sturdy presence throughout the movie, is especially effective in these scenes). The psychological sparring between Vogel and Rachel, David, and Stephan continues after a failed attempt to transfer their prisoner out of Berlin, though Vogel quickly becomes as monstrous as his reputation suggests. It's a perfectly reasonable move but one that makes the presence of a wife (Brigitte Kren) to show some trace of humanity within him an extraneous point.

The majority of the flashback, in fact, is redundant, since the actual truth of the mission comes into question by its very existence. It's a foregone conclusion that the trio's legend is dubious, and that reality is where the movie's major moral quandary presents itself. Instead of dealing with it head-on, though, the script once again shifts into yet another mission as Rachel tries to set things right.

It's an uncomplicated solution to a complicated situation, and, with so much time spent in the past, it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of how the characters are affected by the collected guilt and remorse of their error. The Debt serves as a fine enough outline of its events but lacks any genuine depth of ideas or characterization.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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