The Debt review

With a stellar cast and compelling subject matter, The Debt was all set to be a hard-hitting, harrowing thriller. John Madden (Proof, Shakespeare in Love) is an old hack at drama and period romance, so a tale of Holocaust vengeance laced with a love triangle should have posed no problems.

Well, he almost did it. Based on an Israeli film of the same name (HaHov, 2005), The Debt moves between 1997 Israel and 1966 Germany, weaving a cautionary tale about the the value of vengeance and the price of truth: the eponymous "debt" that must be paid. Rachel (Mirren) has long been a hero in her native Israel for her part in an espionage mission decades before, to find and kill the Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel, AKA "The Surgeon of Birkenau". When her ex-husband and fellow Massod agent Stefan (Wilkinson) arrives back on the scene with news that will destroy this illusion of glory, Rachel is forced to reconsider the actions of her past and ultimately put right the wrong on which she has founded her life's identity.

It's a gripping premise, but it doesn't quite take hold. The acting is superb almost across the board (I didn't quite buy the smouldering reticence of Worthington's David, the third field agent and the final point of the love triangle) - but Hinds is woefully underused, and although Helen Mirren gets more intense screen time, her story feels tacked on. Madden expertly hones tense scenes, punctuating them with a very real and shocking violence, but the score swamps them and the effect is overkill. The most unbearable scenes are the silent ones, while the young Rachel, spread in the gynaecologist's chair, listens to the scrape of the syringe being prepared. Overall there is something insidiously "Hollywood" about the whole thing, and 1960s Berlin feels weirdly contemporary.

Remakes always arouse suspicion, especially those that are cross-cultural and practically contemporary: this one seemed a little like an excuse just to roll out the big names, only to leave them hanging in the wings. I'd be interested to see how closely it follows the original in dealing with the narratives past and present: Mirren's modern-day struggle opens the movie, but then goes awol almost until the end, when it comes back with a vengeance (literally). This segregation may be the film's main flaw - it breaks the flow, making the third act seem like a hasty epilogue or another movie entirely; the film in effect feels divided - in past time it is psychological drama, in present, action thriller. I couldn't help feeling that maintaining the two narratives parallel to one another, splicing together the Rachel of today and the Rachel of yesterday, would have given the story the final clout it needed.

Official Site
The Debt at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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