Originally published on August 31, 2011 on the website of The National Board of Review.
On August 23rd, after a preview screening of The Debt, I led a Q and A with Director John Madden and Actress Jessica Chastain. Much of the discussion focused on the relation of director and actors – including the benefits of an extensive rehearsal process.
The Debt, the new film by John Madden, is a remake that stands on it’s own as an international thriller. With healthy doses of romance, intrigue, vengeance and redemption–the film meets the genre requirements and more. The directing is first rate (Madden’s previous films include Shakespeare in Love and Proof), the cast a pleasure of ensemble inspiration and nuance, the cinematography brisk in mobility and rich in tone, and the story is crafted with emotional and suspenseful detail.
An English-language remake of the recent Israeli film Ha-Hov (also known as The Debt), the screenplay was written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan. Although the film had a circuitous route to the screen and ultimately went from Miramax to Focus Features before finally getting a release–the final result is worth the wait.
The script itself is a thing of beauty–it provides an effective structure to the story that reveals information in a way the builds excitement and expectation. Vaughn and Goldman have previously written Kick-Ass and Xmen: First Class (both directed by Vaughn) and Straughan, who came on to work with Madden, wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats and the upcoming Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The story takes place between two time periods which are about 30 years apart. The earlier time (1966) involves a plan to capture and return to Israel a known Nazi and war criminal known as Dr. Vogel. Though it sounds familiar this part of the story is developed in a fresh and exciting way, pitting the most vulnerable agent against the doctor (now a gynecologist), while being literally on her back. The modern period of the story takes place in 1997 (thirty years later) and confronts the repercussions of the earlier mission.
The film begins with an iconic short sequence of the three young agents leaving the back of an airplane and walking into the bright Israeli sun, obviously at the conclusion of a mission. Rachel has a large bandage covering her entire right cheekbone. When we meet Rachel in “present day” she has become famous for her actions in the 1966 mission–and her daughter has just written a book about the incident, casting her mother’s actions into the most heroic of light. Helen Mirren plays the present day Rachel and is at her very best–intense, dark, incredibly “thoughtful” (she seizes long moments to digest and try to understand the twists that fate have dealt her) and seemingly at odds with herself. Her actions and the consequences have finally caught up to her. Joining her at a fashionable book reading/release event is Stephan, her former husband, now in a wheelchair. As Rachel reads a selected chapter the film goes back to 1966 for the second time–she is reading the “official story” and what we see is a “re-enactment” of that version. When we return to the present, the harrowing events of how they captured and dealt with the fate of the Nazi doctor is truly heroic.
When we meet David in the present day it is clear that he has suffered a personal downward spiral. David’s return sets Rachel off on an investigative mission that will finally lead to the conclusion of her long painful journey. But first she must relive the terrible past one more time. As she passes through a modern day checkpoint we cut to 1966, and the arrival of Rachel and David to East Berlin. Rachel’s memory is the heart of the story, and this flashback is a complete film within a film that follows the actions of the three agents as they plan, execute and try to finally realize their plan.
We meet the three agents when Rachel and David, as fictional man and wife, set the plan in motion by moving into the flat of Stephan, the third agent who has already been planted in Germany. The casting requirement for the film is an interesting challenge–there are three main roles and each are portrayed in their youth (1966) and in middle age (1997). It’s an ensemble approach in which the duo-role actors never appear on screen together–but worked with each other and with Madden to find psychological and physical traits to connect the characters across time periods. In the East Berlin sequences the chemistry and nervous energy between the three young agents is explored physically (they compete with each other using an Israeli combat fighting technique) and psychologically (after all, this is a love triangle). Rachel, played by Jessica Chastain (who is having a career year with major roles in Tree of Life, The Help and Take Shelter), is the least experienced and, as a woman, most deferential of the three. Chastain plays Rachel as someone who starts out unsure before discovering a surprising determination to survive–then excel–in the extremely dangerous mission. Sam Worthington plays David, the softer of the two male agents, who has been given the undercover role of Rachel’s understanding husband. David is a very conflicted young man–his family was murdered in the war–and Worthington portrays an undercurrent of anxiety and anger that makes him immediately sympathetic. Stephan (Martin Csokas) is the tough soldier, determined to work his way up the military ladder even faster than his father did, demanding that everything is accomplished with precision and perfection. Played as the most alpha of males, Csokas creates a compelling portrait of a focused and determined soldier. Jesper Christensen rounds out the cast as the doctor who may also be the killer. Christensen’s performance is a delicious cross between monster and benevolent grandfather that makes him a villain of the first caliber.
The Berlin sequence follows a series of events that create expectation and suspense. The soldiers must train and carefully plan their mission. They must fact check. They must get to know–and trust–each other. It’s a mission where everything must go right to work–but we suspect and fear that somewhere along the line luck is going to run out. The sequences that most stand out involve Christensen’s Dr. Vogel–beginning with a memorable series of meetings between Rachel and Vogel in his doctor’s office. It is quite unnerving to watch Rachel consult him about her potential for pregnancy as he adjusts her naked legs for the doctor’s exam. The action is creepy in an almost unbearable David Cronenberg kind of way–and riveting at the same time.
The last part of The Debt explores the cause and effects situation that the three agents have created for themselves. Is this the debt that they owe their country? Or is there a debt that they owe to themselves–the effect of their actions so many years ago? Led by Ms. Mirren, the roles are ideally cast. These are characters who–despite their seeming success–have been eaten away from the inside by the shame of their actions and the fear of what might happen if the truth is revealed. Tom Wilkenson plays an adult Stephan who has found the success he was after but does not seem capable, physically or mentally, of savoring it. In a wheelchair, the result of a road mine, he no longer towers over anyone (as did the youthful Csokas). But he also seems quite lonely at the top–there is a joylessness to Wilkenson’s portrayal that suggests Stephan might be a doomed man. David is played by Ciarán Hinds in a way that leaves little doubt that he has completely lost his bearings. The sadness originally expressed by Worthington has blossomed into full-scale depression and/or paranoia. David has spent a great deal of time in hospitals–and has begun a private mission related to the events of their past. Both of the men have followed an extreme path and become failed extensions of the ideas and actions that made up their youth.
The dual role shared by Mirren and Chastain has a different quality–it offers more physical and psychological parallels, suggesting that the events of Rachel’s youth have remained a distinct part of her personality. She has made a number of life-defining choices and her life has changed considerably. As defined by Mirren Rachel is still the woman of her youth, now imprisoned by the secrets of her past. This tonal consistency in performance is something that Madden, Mirren and Chastain worked on. One obvious technique they employed involve the sunglasses that both Rachels wear. Not only are the styles similar but the specific hand gestures–both hands on either side of the frame, the way the glasses are lifted and placed–immediately identify each as the same person. It is Rachel who is essentially telling the story–and who is most vividly living though the consequences of her actions. In a film with numerous outstanding performances, the work of Mirren and Chastain tie the two eras of storytelling together–and give the film a sense of cohesion and completeness.
The cinematography is rich and bold–the Berlin sequences during the night-time action exteriors and in the dark and foreboding apartment are deep in contrast and full of detail. The few daytime scenes take place mostly in Vogel’s office–the image feels like it is lit by natural light–adding to the uneasiness “normalcy” of the events. In the present day there is much more use of natural light and scenes take place in larger, less confined spaces. Madden also uses sound in numerous ways to develop suspense, working with Peter Lindsay and the audio department to create a rich and immersive atmosphere. This is especially true in the Berlin apartment sequences, the most dramatic of which seem to take place during the rain. The first time we enter the apartment it is to the sound of rainwater falling and large drops slashing into metal containers. A hand-held camera follows young Rachel as she moves throughout the dark old apartment, placing pots and pans to deal with the water. Suffice to say we are surprised and even shocked by what we find as Rachel moves from room to room. Later in the film, when Madden repeats an important sequence, there are a few notable changes in action that are accented by some interesting repetitions (and variations) in the soundtrack as well.
The Debt is an intelligent, exciting and expertly written thriller that is specific to time and place but universal in the conflicts, choices and challenges it sets up. How do we respond to crisis when it suddenly erupts? What choices do we make–can we count on ourselves to “do the right thing” at a moment’s notice? And how do we live with the choices we make–especially when the choices feel less and less honorable as the years go by? The Debt considers and explores these questions in dramatic and intellectually satisfying ways.
Thomas W. Campbell