5 October 2011

THE DEBT- Review

The script for The Debt comes from writers who've written scripts with similar themes to this film, but scripts that are completely different from one another. The dynamic duo of Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, who brought Erik Lensherr's Nazi-hunting pursuits to the screen in X-Men: First Class, are credited, but so is Peter Straughan, who wrote the new adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with all of its classy espionage suspense.And on top of being an adaptation of previous material, this film also extrapolates the best parts of each.

Set in 1997, the daughter of former Mossad agent Rachel Singer is releasing a book about her mother's famous mission, during which she captured and killed Dieter Vogel, a Nazi war criminal known as "the Surgeon of Birkenau". Along with her two colleagues, Rachel was praised as a hero. But all these years, the three agents have been keeping a terrible secret, and as the film unfolds, the real events that took place in 1966 makes the truth of their situation apparent, and crucial to their later lives too.

While the film jumps around in time, it's more linear than Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and you'll hear many say that the extended reveal of everything that happened on the agents' fateful mission is by far the strongest passage of the film, so much so that the rest of the film suffers by comparison. There are many things going on here that could disconnect the audience from the characters, especially in how each of the three principal characters are played by two different actors. There's some questionable casting too- Marton Csokas could feasibly be a younger version of either Tom Wilkinson or Ciaran Hinds, while Sam Worthington doesn't resemble either of the older counterparts that much.

Still, I found it very involving, and the actors were strong enough that you could easily enough tell who was who, by their personalities, once the film gets going. Csokas and Wilkinson share enough mannerisms to connect them to the character of Stefan, and you don't have to quibble over the disparity between Worthington and Hinds as David for too long in any case. But throughout, Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren are each on spectacular form as Rachel- Mirren is haunted by the events that we gradually learn about, through watching Chastain actually experience them. It's a gift of a role for each of them- a robust female character who's integral to the whole affair, and not merely love triangle fodder for the male characters.

The other highlight in the cast is Jesper Christensen, who plays Vogel. When the mission first goes awry, the young agents' objective becomes something much more difficult- keeping the bad doctor alive and healthy until Mossad has another opportunity to extract him. Christensen fosters the air of paranoia that descends over the safehouse in that most compelling part of the film, placing his captors under the microscope and somehow exposing their own imperfections, even from the standpoint of having killed thousands in a concentration camp.

And so, as Nazi-hunting films go, the tone is much closer to Munich than Inglourious Basterds. The latter fictionalised and simplified the process of post-war justice, for entertainment value and catharsis. There's less catharsis in the former, and in The Debt- films which are less sure of whether or not its characters are exacting true justice, or if they are merely ensuring that the world sees justice to be done. On top of it all, John Madden's direction is taut and exciting, and it sustains the script's jumps backwards and forwards in time, informed by Thomas Newman's haunted score.

But the screenwriters' previous shortcomings are apparent too. Even appreciating Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from an artistic standpoint, Straughan's emotionally unavailable version left me saying "Is that it?" at the film's denouement. And Vaughn and Goldman aren't known for making their conclusions completely satisfying. Kick-Ass, for instance, stopped being as much of a satire of unrealistic superhero movies as soon as that jetpack came out. When this collaborative effort draws to a disappointing close, it's Vaughn and Goldman's sensibilities on show, with all that felt like Straughan's work giving it the extra feeling that the film has its cake, and leaves half of it uneaten.

For the larger part of its 113 minute running time, The Debt is an intense and solidly acted drama that crosses deftly between the heat of post-war tensions and its more contemporary crises of conscience. It's more suspenseful than any film I can recall seeing this year, in both the standout central passage of tension and the general mystery of these characters and their earth-shattering secret. It doesn't come to an entirely satisfying conclusion, but Jesper Christensen's presence is enough to recommend it, all by himself. A superior, robustly constructed espionage thriller.

The Debt is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
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I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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