John Madden’s The Debt is an outstanding remake of the 2007 Israeli film HaHov. Three Mossad agents are sent undercover into East Berlin to capture and kidnap a man suspected of being a former Nazi doctor who “experimented” on Jewish children in concentration camps. The Debt follows how their mission unraveled; played out in both 1966 Berlin, and in 1997 Israel.
Jessica Chastain plays the 1966 version of Rachel Singer, a Mossad agent on her first mission. She’s teamed with David Peretz (Sam Worthington) and team leader Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas), tasked with kidnapping the “Butcher of Birkenau,” Dieter Vogel (based on, I believe, the real life Josef Mengele and played here by Jesper Christensen). In the present (as much as 2007 is the present) Helen Mirren, Ciaràn Hands, and Tom Wilkinson respectively play their elder counterparts, living a life so heavy with the guilt of not completing the mission as assigned.
The way director John Madden and the writing team of Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goodman weave the audience though the present and the past is nothing short of brilliant. Instead of simply using the present story to frame the past, our first flashback to the past starts that particular story in media res, showing how the mission went off track as written by Rachel and Stephan’s daughter Sarah (Romi Aboulafia, whom I admittedly mistook for Franka Potente most of the film) in the book she’s written about her parent’s famous tale of heroism. Later, we see the mission play out, and inevitably unravel, from the beginning. I doubt I’ve done any justice to how well the story is told, but it is difficult to do so definitively without spoiling exactly how things go wrong, and how the team reacts, both in the present and in the past.
Madden also did an outstanding job pacing the story. He manages to slowly evolve the tone, starting slowly as we learn who (and when) the characters are, and slowly building the tension so subtlety that the audience doesn’t realize they’ve managed to slide to the edge of their seats. What’s more, he pulls this off several times during the course of the movie. The Debt is a thinking movie in its complexity, while the actors inhabit their roles so completely you don’t have to think as much as you just experience it.
In a sea of outstanding performances, Jessica Chastain stole the show. The scenes where she was being examined by Vogel were amazing … Chastain played them with a mix of terror and anticipation that was so palpable the audience could almost taste the adrenaline in our own mouths. It’s not a stretch to recognize Hinds, Worthington, or Christensen’s performances either. Hinds did so much with little screen time. Worthington proved that he might actually be the “next big thing” billing that he’s been receiving. And Christensen swung between being a devil and then an innocent so masterfully, it was creepy (in this instance, “creepy” is actually a compliment). That I’m only mentioning Tom Wilkinson and Helen Mirren after their several cast mates isn’t a criticism (quite the contrary), but a testament to just how good Chastain and the rest were.
The Debt was supposed to be late 2010 Oscar bait, but was held in the can until now due to the sale of Miramax. Despite not falling into the typical Oscar release timeline, I think that it will likely show up often come nomination time. I really want to catch the original film now, but can’t seem to track down a US copy of it (hit me up in the comments if you know where I can track one down).