The Debt

The Israelis make some good movies, though much like us and the French, they tend to flagellate themselves rather a lot. Back in 2007, they made a film called The Debt, which never got released to theaters here but which captured the eye of someone here enough to encourage an English-language remake.

This was the last film made under the Miramax banner before its acquisition by Disney and with delays and (probably) dubious marketability, it’s only now coming out, in the last gasp of summer. But, hey, Helen Mirren got spend a couple of years getting into character.

Which pays off.

The story is—and you can see this all in the trailer, no spoilers here—back in the ‘60s, Rachel, Stephan and David are sent behind the iron curtain in order to extract the Mengele-like character Dieter Vogel, who escaped capture after the war to set up a practice. The mission goes awry and the three are stuck behind enemy lines with no way out, and a hostile hostage to transport.

Now, since the movie is told in flashbacks 30 years later, we know they survive. But something else happened when they were out in the field, and it’s something nobody knows about.

The Boy said, afterwards, that this was a remarkably suspenseful film considering you already knew that they lived through the adventure. This is true and a good storytelling trick: To create suspense even though the audience knows how it turns out.

Because we don’t know exactly how it turned out. And the Devil is in the details, as it turns out. The ’60s-era stuff is high tension, interesting and also creepy. There’s a brief part that takes place in 1970 that is necessary but kind of unpleasant and sad. Then the rest takes place in ’97, when the three character reunite as a book about their adventures has been written.

This leads to a rather improbable but satisfying close that works dramatically and on an action-movie level.

Simon and Chetwynd (of Poliwood) loved this movie and have gone so far to say that our movie critics are somewhat dense for not liking it. Roger Ebert gave it 2.5 stars apparently because he had trouble distinguishing between David and Stephan, which he says is vital in a thriller. We (The Boy and I) suck at that, and I was confused initially, too, except that it didn’t really matter from a thriller standpoint. You had plenty of time to straighten out the young actors from the old actors during the dramatic closing parts, when it mattered.

So, yeah, I’m going with “not too bright”, too. Also, anti-semitic. Just to be safe.

That said, I think they’ve over-rated it a bit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s well above average. It marries espionage thriller with some pretty heavy drama, against which some interesting social questions are asked. But somewhat like Sarah’s Key, the issues of the modern world against the backdrop of the Cold War and Nazi-ism tend to feel sort of trivial. Though here the modern issues are considerably bigger, at least, than Sarah’s Key.

A helpful guide for the Ebert-esque:

Jessica Chastain turns into Helen Mirren.
Martin Csokas turns into Tom Wilkinson.
Sam Worthington turns into Ciaran Hinds.

Sort of amusingly, to me, Helen Mirren is the oldest of the old actors, but looked far-and-away the best. She’s also the closest in age now to how old her character would be now but since the movie takes place nearly 15 years ago, she’s actually playing someone ten years younger. It works ’cause, you know, Helen Mirren.

Csokas and Wilkinson look similar enough to where you can see the former aging into the latter. Ciaran Hinds, on the other hand, looks like death warmed over, and I can only assume this was deliberate, if heart-breaking to the ladies in the audience.

Needless to say, the acting is top-notch, not the least of which is done by Jesper Christensen (Quantum of Solace) as the Nazi doctor. It recalls Bruno Ganz in Downfall, as he transitions smoothly from a doctor-like patter of sympathy and concern to explaining exactly why the Jews deserved to die.

Chilling.

And you know how I am about the whole Nazi thing. If you’re going to do a Nazi story, you better be giving me something other than “Nazis are bad.” The strongest dramatic parts of the movie occur between Jessica Chastain and Christensen, both in the doctor’s office and later on. It works so well that when Helen Mirren confronts him later, the character continuity is seamless.

Messr. Ebert notwithstanding.

Solid flick, and above-average in a summer sea of average and sub-par crud.

A propos of what I was ranting on in my review of The Guard, this movie strives and achieves a verisimilitude without worrying about authenticity. I don’t think a lot of Nazi war criminals escaped behind the iron curtain, for example, and I don’t think Mossad performed any extractions (although I believe they helped the Refuseniks to some degree). But it all has a plausible feel, to where you start to wonder if they did do something like that, or could have.

Definitely recommend.

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