The Debt

Film, Drama
The Debt
Photograph: Laurie Sparham Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington in The Debt
Like ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, this secret agent thriller practically sells itself on the cast alone. Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson are middle-aged Mossad agents trying to clean up an old job. Meanwhile, their younger selves are played by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and the charismatic Marton Csokas (‘The Lord of the Rings’).

A remake of the Israeli film ‘Ha Hov’, this starts in 1997 when retired Israeli agent Rachel (Mirren) is attending her daughter’s book launch in Tel Aviv. The book hails Rachel and her cohorts as heroes, but flashbacks start to tell a more complicated story. Stephan (Csokas) meets David (Worthington) and Rachel (Chastain) in East Berlin. Their mission is to track down and kidnap Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (an excellent Jesper Christensen). Since Vogel is working as a gynaecologist and fertility expert, it falls to the unfortunate Rachel to entrap him by posing as a patient (cue awkward examination scenes). Every time she returns to the flat with the two men, the sexual tension escalates and ultimately threatens the success of the mission.

It’s during these flashbacks that the tone of ‘The Debt’ is at its most confident. The goal is clear, the characterisation absorbing and the suspense only slightly marred by an early apparent giveaway. Chastain is terrific as the young Rachel, giving a performance that’s thoughtful, focused and determined. Csokas is deliciously mischievous and irreverent, while ‘Avatar’ star Worthington puts in a much more layered performance than usual, perhaps thanks to his sensitive character whose troubled emotions flicker across his wordless face.

Back in the ’90s, the plotting isn’t so clear. While the actors are magnificent, Wilkinson looks nothing like Csokas, and Hinds is no ringer for Worthington, so it’s easy to confuse them. Their distracting lack of resemblance to their younger selves is liable to pull the audience out of an otherwise gripping scenario.

But while the ending also pushes credibility, it features a stand-out set piece as the older Rachel reluctantly goes back into action. A respectable woman of a certain age, she’s suddenly forced to confront her demons both mentally and physically, resulting in a pensioner punch-up that would almost be comic were it not for Mirren’s ability to make just about anything believable.

This isn’t as slick as director John Madden’s ‘Shakespeare in Love’ or as commercial as other Matthew Vaughn/Jane Goldman screenplays (interestingly, the third writer is Peter Straughan, who co-wrote ‘Tinker, Tailor…’). Nor is it an entirely coherent film. But ‘The Debt’ tackles themes of humanity, revenge and truth so successfully it’s hard not to find it powerful – even if it’s not the Oscar bait it might have hoped to be. Leave that to ‘Tinker’.

By: Anna Smith


Release details

Rated: 15
Release date: Friday September 30 2011
Duration: 113 mins

Cast and crew

Director: John Madden
Screenwriter: Jane Goldman, Assaf Bernstein
Cast: Marton Csokas
Ciarán Hinds
Sam Worthington
Tom Wilkinson
Helen Mirren
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While most of the reviews I've read of The Debt tell the essential story, none have tackled what to me was the most interesting aspect of the film...the moral struggles of two of the Massad agents in their relationship with the Nazi doctor who murdered thousands. These two have such humanity, such almost unwillingness to fully criminalize this Nazi that it presents some core issues about how we deal with each other. Do we murder murderers and then become murderers ourselves?

the worst melodrama and love triangle ever made on holocaust reducing it to a caricature with miscast characters and boring flashbacks and a joke of a fantasy finale

Whilst I admired Tinker, I really enjoyed The Debt a whole lot more. It was just a much more exciting film, particularly the scenes with the "good" doctor! Those scenes in Berlin were some of the most gripping and tense pieces I've seen all year. Highly recommended.

Whilst I admired Tinker, I really enjoyed The Debt a whole lot more. It was just a much more exciting film, particularly the scenes with the "good" doctor! Those scenes in Berlin were some of the most gripping and tense pieces I've seen all year. Highly recommended.

Lots of great things about this film, particularly the flashback scenes. However, the plot veered from intriguing to surprising to laughable in a couple of places, which took away from the real drama that was going on. Agree with Phil Ince - the subject matter was a bit tacky. But enjoyable performances made it worth seeing, and the surprising bits of plot made for an on the whole interesting experience.

Whilst there are some good moments in the film and it is well acted in parts, I came away feeling a little disappointed, particularly given the parties involved. I think the plot and dialogue was lacking in part and the ending was a little unbelievable.

A well-cast, well-acted, Oscar nomination worthy film. I found it gripping, and at times tense enough to be looking at the screen between my fingers. I thought the attention to set detail was very good. The final scene is excellent and doesn’t disappoint.

Desperate to do more than just "quite like it" but can't. Nasty Nazi/Mossad misery = worthy but a tad dull. JUST cinema worthy thanks to a running time that fully realises it's story has been told. As for TINKER being (just) Oscar bait, MORE Oscar bait PLEASE! 6/10

Overrated and disappointing. Hammish quantities of emotion, not enough intellectual stimulation. Unconvincing situations, predictable outcomes. I was glad when it was over.

During this week seen both Tinker Tailor and The Debt. With both films getting vary reviews, found The Debt getting the vote, as this was a better pace and easier to follow. Did find the story going back and forward strange at times , yet will see this one again as really good

Great performances from stellar cast, Mirren and Chastian in particular scintillate. Very well plotted and delivered - visually. One question mark a storey of Mossad agents after an old Nazi really that compelling? The movie makes it a "yes" but I doubt if it woiuld fly with a lesser cast and less btilliant story-telling from the Director.

Having read TO’s fairly enthusiastic review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, then seen it and walked away thinking it was pants-ish, I was hesitant about another spy thriller in the same fortnight. Anna Smith’s review (above) for The Debt is accurate. That said, I didn’t find the look of the older vs younger actors distracting. . The story is very well constructed, directed, and cut. At times I felt the pace could have been quicker, but equally the occasionally slower pace lent itself to a fair amount of tension and at one point I was close to standing up and shouting to the actors “Come on – just do it!� . The quality of acting in this movie is excellent. My only niggle might be how Sam Worthington’s range of emotions lets him down a couple of times – I would have otherwise given this film a very rare 5 stars. A four star movie. Recommended.