It seems like we have been waiting ages for The Debt, the latest thriller from costume drama king John Madden (Mrs. Brown, Shakespeare in Love, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) to hit cinemas. A remake of an Israeli film of the same name, it was originally scheduled for a release in late 2010, and after a few festival debuts, a complex merger deal between companies saw it lost in the works for a while. Now that it is finally here, it’s got a few big drawcards on its hands: co-writer Matthew Vaughn has hit a home-run with X-Men: First Class and star Jessica Chastain has grabbed attention by appearing in almost every film of 2011.
In 1997, former Mossad agent Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren, Arthur) is honoured by her daughter at a book launch chronicling one of her mother’s most famous exploits. Together with ex-husband Stefan Gold (Tom Wilkinson, The Conspirator) and David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), they were responsible for one of the most famous Nazi hunts in Israeli history. When David commits suicide, it becomes evident something is rotten in the state of Israel. In 1966, the young Rachel (Jessica Chastain, The Help), David (Sam Worthington, Clash of the Titans) and Stefan (Marton Csokas, Dream House) hunt down Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen, Melancholia), known as “The Surgeon of Birkenau” for his butchering experiments during the Second World War.
Despite the time-shifting, and the amazing ensemble of actors from two generations, The Debt is essentially a spy-caper with a snatch-and-grab as its core plot device. It’s a smartly written affair, of course, but it is very much tied to the tradition of films such as Steven Spielberg’s Munich or Olivier Assayas’ Carlos. While there is a human drama at the heart of this thriller, scenes where the trio must carry out some overcomplicated task in a limited amount of time are straight out of the Spy Handbook, and even James Bond has traded them in for parkour and brutal hand-to-hand combat. Yet it is these retro-inspired scenes that are the strongest of The Debt, with each character a mystery to be slowly unwrapped. Even their target seems to have some redeeming human qualities before showing his true face during some intimate moments.
Even with the strong cast of veteran actors, it is the thinly drawn 1990s setting that fails to yield any emotional impact. A broken string of the expected plagues this era, and the film fails to compensate for the amount of time we have now emotionally invested in their younger counterparts. With Hinds departing the screen far too early, the bookend builds to a ridiculous finale that not only defies logic, but betrays the carefully balanced characters of the earlier time period. A misfire to be sure in a film that attempts to be so much more, but fails to let go of the the familiar in searching for a way to explore something new.