The Debt (2010)
John Madden, the Academy Award-nominated director of Shakespeare in Love, tells quite a different love story in his latest, The Debt.
At the height of the Cold War, a team of three agents plan to kill a Nazi criminal, who works as a doctor in Berlin. Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stefan (Marton Csokas), and David (Sam Worthington) encounter difficulties, but will they complete their mission? Years later, the trio (played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds, respectively) discovers haunting news, and must face the past that they’ve long evaded. “Maybe it’s not always a blessing to survive…”
Must Jessica Chastain be in everything? Her poignant performance in the film, which released first in France back in 2010, jump-started her career and led to roles in The Help, Take Shelter, and The Tree of Life. And Helen Mirren…splendid as always. Her role is deeply emotional, and if you know Helen you know her emotional transparency allows her to truly wear her emotions on her sleeve. Mirren and Christopher Plummer are both entirely brilliant in The Last Station, by the way. Anyway, Mirren isn’t in The Debt near as much as she deserves to be.
This meditative, methodical mystery thriller (no, not “Magical Mystery Tour”…at least that’s what I thought it sounded like) takes a while to transpire, as its almost two-hour runtime seems to drag on a bit. But the story is gripping, and in the first few minutes, you’ll find yourself aching to see how it ends.
This is where the movie falters. The end, while a violent, suspenseful one, lacks realism and relies on illogical coincidences. A “geriatric fight,” as my father alluded, ends with a bang. Actually, the lack of a bang, the “bang” of gunfire, makes this thriller all the more subtle and suspenseful. But anyway, the events portrayed probably wouldn’t have happened as they did, and it’s a bit disappointing. The trip is wonderful, as the mystery builds, but then it’s a bit of a let-down.
The German and Ukrainian languages that are spoken make the film much more believable than the all-British cast of the Paris-set Hugo or the Borat accents in The Devil’s Double. Even the biggest stars seem to know their German, and while they don’t use it all of the time, they seem to have their accents well-practiced for the rest of the film.
Now I’m going to get finicky. Ciarán Hinds wears his character’s troubled past on his sleeve wonderfully, but in my opinion, he was cast for the wrong part. While he plays the older David, played by Sam Worthington, he looks entirely more similar to Stefan, played by Marton Csokas.
Tell me I’m wrong!
I talked earlier about how Sony Pictures Classics has a rich history of releasing underrated films here, but Focus Features has a similar reputation. Beginners, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, The Kids Are All Right, and Atonement are just a few examples of such tremendous films. The Debt doesn’t quite live up to those expectations, but no matter.
The Debt looks great on paper, but it’s in the execution that it falters (you’ll find that statement highly ironic if you see the film).