Cineworld Glasgow, 30.09.11

There’s something determinedly old-fashioned about The Debt, the new film from director John Madden, not only the style with which Madden handles his drama and action sequences and the grainy, grey sheen given to the scenes set in East Berlin during the Cold War, but in the very story itself.

In the present day Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stephen (Tom Wilkinson) attend the press launch of their daughter’s new book, which retells the tale of their capture and killing of Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), known as the ‘Buthcher of Berkenhow’ for atrocities committed against Jews in the concentration camps. Through flashback we see the young Rachel (Jessica Chastain) and Stephen (Marton Csokas), together with David (Sam Worthington), working for the Israeli government and gradually learn the true events of what happened on their mission, leading to a shocking revelation and, back in the present day, one last mission for Rachel in order to put things right.

By setting much of the film during the height of the Cold War in East Berlin, and centering the story around the capture of a Nazi criminal, The Debt manages to, of course, cut a very clear path between who is good and who is bad.  No matter that Christensen brings so much charisma and creepiness to his role – he is a Nazi and is clearly marked as ‘bad’.  The decisions made by the young Israelis are  therefore made less ambiguous. Even in the modern-day settings, the issues surrounding Palestine and the Middle-East are ignored completely.  The Debt conforms to uniting its audience in a common enemy, in the same way that many Hollywood films have Nazis or aliens as the bad guys when they want to keep things simple.  There is at least an attempt at some complexity amongst the three main characters, with their decision to keep quiet about what really occurred in East Berlin.  Are they acting for the good of Israeli people, as they seem to tell themselves, or is it a more selfish act?  They can’t be seen to have failed in their mission for the sake of the Israeli people, but equally, by lying about their own actions, they are preserving their own reputations and avoiding inevitable shame and disgrace once they have returned to Israel.

Helen Mirren seems to be able to turn up in anything these days and only receive critical adulation, even inexplicable choices like appearing alongside Russell Brand in the hideous Arthur (2011, Jason Winer) remake can’t seem to dim critics view of her.  It’s good to see her in something more substantial here, and alongside the ever reliable Wilkinson they form a solid base for the film.  Ciaràn Hinds appears all to briefly once more, as in the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011, Tomas Alfredson) and countless other films, it would be nice to see him given a meatier role in a big film.  He does however, get a tremendous and shocking moment that is fantastically filmed.

The star of the film, though is Jessica Chastain as the young Rachel, at once vulnerable and strong, determined yet naive.  Chastain manages to embody all these in her central role and it is her portrayal that gives The Debt its real heart. Along with her roles in the upcoming The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011) and the critical success of The Tree Of Life  (Terence Malick, 2011) she is clearly one to watch.  Csokas as the young version of  is equally good, which just leaves poor Sam Worthington to stand out as the weak link in the ensemble cast.  The level of emotion and turmoil he needs to portray in the young, conflicted David is too much for Worthington’s limited range, and, while an adequate actor, in amongst some illustrious company his frailties are revealed.  After a string of critically poorly received performances in the likes of Terminator Salvation (McQ, 2009) and Clash Of The Titans (Louis Leterrier, 2010), one wonders how long he can maintain his position in the Hollywood A-list.  It’s surely no coincidence that his most successful film (though by no means his best), Avatar (2009, James Cameron),  is one in which his face and body have been digitally replaced and animated as a big blue Smurf.

The three young protagonists make up a very inadequate hit squad behind the Wall, who seem incapable of carrying out their orders without messing up, but the plot does provide a number of decent twists, and manages to keep the audience intrigued and engrossed without becoming too predictable.  It unravels slightly towards the end, once the episode in Cold War Berlin has finished, and we are launched into a modern-day mission for the retired Rachel.  It becomes slightly unbelievable that she would agree to take part in such a mission all these years later, in much the same way that it is unbelievable that their secret could have remained unknown for so long.  However, it serves as a reminder that evil still exists in the world and cannot simply be ignored,

Madden (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001), and Shakespeare in Love (1998))makes a good fist of directing in a genre that he is not renowned for, but it is intriguing to see the screenwriters credited – Matthew Vaughn, director and writer of Kick-Ass (2010) and Stardust (2007), and his regular collaborator Jane Goldman.  Like Madden, this is a new departure from their normal work, and it would have been intriguing to see what Vaughn would have made of working on a Cold War thriller.  Still, Madden has produced a solid, if not outstanding, thriller that is well worth a look in a year of too many mindless action films full of bombast but little thought.

Film Rating: 3 out of 5.

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