The Debt – Film Review

The Debt
The Debt
Directed by John Madden
Film Review by Thomas W. Campbell

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.
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