Wednesday 9 December 2015

Movie Review: The Debt (2010)

A decades-spanning action drama set in the world of Mossad agents, The Debt is a powerful story about spies grappling with personal agonies in a world that demands heroes and easy victories.

The film unfolds in two time periods, 1965 and 1997, with the same characters portrayed by different actors. In 1965, Mossad agents Rachel (Jessica Chastain), David (Sam Worthington) and Stefan (Marton Csokas) are sent on a dangerous mission to East Berlin. They are to abduct and bring back to Israel Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel, more famously known as the Surgeon of Birkenau for his macabre wartime experiments on concentration camp prisoners.

David is a sensitive introvert, while Stefan is the more cocky extrovert. Both men fall in love with the determined and capable Rachel. The trio do find and capture Vogel, but the mission runs into trouble before they can smuggle him out of East Berlin. In captivity at the safe house, the former Nazi turns out to be a formidable foe, but nevertheless, Rachel, David and Stefan eventually return home as heroes, their mission proclaimed a great success. A pregnant Rachel marries Stefan soon afterwards.

In Tel Aviv of 1997, Rachel (Helen Mirren) is being feted on the cocktail circuit. Her daughter Sarah (Romi Aboulafia) has just published a book chronicling the famous 1965 mission. The celebrations are marred when David (CiarĂ¡n Hinds) commits suicide by stepping in front of a large truck. Stefan (Tom Wilkinson), now a senior Mossad executive but confined to a wheelchair, reconnects with his ex-wife Rachel. David's suicide is a sure sign that all is not well in the spy world, and Rachel will reluctantly be drawn back into a world of intrigue that she thought was firmly in her past.

Visiting some of the same territory as 2005's MunichThe Debt is a film that demands concentration. Director John Madden jumps around between 1965 and 1997, and adds a brief stop in 1970 for good measure. With six actors portraying the three main characters, this is a film where it is imperative to quickly understand who-is-who, when and where. Madden pulls off the not insignificant trick of keeping the narrative cohesive while simultaneously establishing three unique characters and the psychological luggage they have accumulated over 32 years.

The pay-off for investing in the film's complex structure is immense. Madden and the team of screenwriters (Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan) reveal the secrets of the plot slowly, in tantalizing increments, first introducing a sense of lingering unease, then an unresolved dynamic between Rachel, David and Stefan, and finally, a quite stunning secret hiding at the heart of their professional lives. The film works its way towards a simmering conflict that draws in personal achievement, honour, private emotions and national pride, resulting in a delicate balance constructed in 1965 but at risk of collapsing in 1997.

The Debt also pokes away at the deep scars of the holocaust. The character of Vogel emerges as an evil Nazi catalyst for the ages, chillingly adept at matching wits with the Mossad agents despite being shackled. He finds their weaknesses, pushes their buttons, and seeks any advantage, turning what was an already dangerous mission into a journey through psychological hell for Rachel and her colleagues. This added layer of dark human sparring elevates The Debt to a level of intellectual excellence rarely encountered in a spy action drama.

The film's aesthetics are as grim and layered as the subject matter. The Ben Davis cinematography brings to life an East Berlin bathed in dank browns, yellows and greys, the iron curtain firmly closed and controlled by a police state.

Jessica Chastain delivers an amazing performance, conveying the fragility of a new field agent dropped into the real world of danger, falling in love with rugged colleagues, and having to stare down a butcher of men. Her scenes as Rachel overcomes her horror and disgust and pretends to be Vogel's patient at his gynecology practice are simply devastating in their sheer brilliance. In comparison, Helen Mirren as Rachel in 1997 and the likes of Sam Worthington (intense as the younger David) and Tom Wilkinson (a shrewd political operator as the older Stefan) are merely good.

The Debt is a thought-provoking puzzle, a journey through the moral ambiguity of a world where lust for revenge competes with historical wrongs, and the outcome is both right, wrong, and disastrous, depending on perspective.

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