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The Debt - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
The Debt
Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A

The Debt is a superb example of solid, straightforward, riveting storytelling. In a cleverly placed opening sequence, the daughter of a retired spy (Helen Mirren) is speaking at the launch event for her book about her mother, and thus immediately provides a concise description of the story background: thirty years before, her mother and two other men went into Berlin to kidnap a Nazi war criminal in an attempt to bring him back to stand trial.

Then, director John Madden wastes no time in truly getting our attention. We see one of the other ex-spies in the present day; he sees another sitting in his car nearby; he immediately walks in front of a bus. It's a shocking turn of events very early in the film that plays a particularly effective part in the telling of the story. If nothing else, you'll certainly be awake at that point. And paying close attention.

Back at the book launch, Rachel (Mirren) is asked to read a key passage from her daughter's biography, and we see the event in flashback: the young Rachel (Jessica Chastain) is dressing the wounds of a bound prisoner in what appears to be an apartment; the prisoner escapes and attacks her (explaining the scar on her cheek); the prisoner runs out but Rachel manages to shoot him in the back.

What Madden carefully and systematically reveals is that events did not actually unfold exactly the way everyone has been told, and what we are privy to is what really happened, as we go back to the mid-sixties and meet the three spies at their younger ages: Rachel; David (Sam Worthington); and Stephan (Marton Csokas). Rachel and David pretend to be a young married couple trying to have a baby, and Rachel's visits to the doctor are the scouting and ultimate finding of the Nazi criminal they're looking for.

In their attempt at capturing Doktor Bernhardt (Jesper Christensen) and getting him across the border in East Berlin, things go wrong. This is how the doctor ends up tied up and kept captive in their apartment, as the three spies scramble to find some alternate way to get Bernhardt to a place where he must stand trial.

In the meantime, an arguably unnecessary love triangle ensues between the three spies. David, the sole survivor of the holocaust in his family, clearly loves Rachel but is too guarded. Rachel then lets her guard down with Stephan. This provides some extra drama both in the sixties sequences and in those set thirty years later, but The Debt really could have been just as effective without it. Ultimately, this aspect merely reflects the continuing unfortunate conviction of filmmakers that audiences must have romance no matter what. But this movie really isn't about romance -- it's about secrets, lies, revenge and atonement. Sure, romance is often intertwined with all these things, but it's not a necessary component.

That said, the casting, both in the 1960s sequences and the 1990s sequences, is impeccable. Jessica Chastain seems to be having a very good year, proving herself to be quite the chameleon in three very different roles: a Mossad agent in The Debt; a Southern floozy in The Help; a 1950s Middle American housewife in The Tree of Life. Sam Worthington shows greater depth as an actor than most of his populist-movie roles allow. Marton Csokas, the only comparative unknown among the six leads, effectively channels a slightly younger Clive Owen. And in the older actors, not only is Helen Mirren a joy to watch as always, but we get the reliably impeccable Tom Wilkinson as her ex-husband and character actor Ciarán Hinds making more of a small part than most can manage.

In the end, The Debt really turns out to be Helen Mirren's movie, as her character is most involved in the pivotal plot point and turns out to be the only one of the three capable of attempting to make things right. She is integral to the film's climax, and if anyone can prove that even older actors (or particularly actresses) can be riveting enough to keep you on the edge of your seat -- even while playing totally age-appropriate roles -- it's Mirren.

The Debt is a far cry from, say, a sixty-something Rambo supposedly kicking ass the way he always did. These are highly trained and intelligent government operatives, not martial arts experts. They are flawed characters, who make mistakes, and we can only hope they're barely strong enough to do what must be done. That's what makes this such a great movie: there are realistic things at stake, and the characters take real-world approaches to them. The ending won't be happy for everyone, but it's certainly satisfying for the audience.

Helen Mirren is one of three older ex-spies with a huge secret to contend with in 'The Debt'.

Overall: A-
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