The Debt, 2011.
Directed by John Madden.
Starring Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Wilkinson and Jessica Chastain.
Three Mossad agents relive their gruelling mission to bring an old concentration camp doctor to justice.
Nobody knew what the film would be. The theatre even skipped the BBFC classification card at the start to string the suspense along a little longer. It was the last ‘secret screening’ of Empire’s Big Screen event at the O2. As soon as the film began and the credits began to appear over an airstrip in the Middle East with ‘The Debt’ in small white letters superimposed upon it, at least 30 people walked out right away. They had paid good money. They weren’t gonna even give it a chance. Idiots.
But they might have made the right decision. The Debt is so mediocre it hurts, like how a beige wall can give you a thundering headache after staring at it long enough. Your eyeballs begin to itch. The seat becomes terribly uncomfortable. I won’t be one of those who walked out, I thought stubbornly. I’ve paid good money.
It’s about a trio of Mossad (Israeli Secret Service) agents – Rachel (Helen Mirren / Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Tom Wilkinson / Marton Csokas) and David (Ciaran Hinds / Sam Worthington) tracking down an old Nazi doctor in East Berlin. He performed a number of ‘experiments’ during his concentration camp days, which are occasionally mentioned and shown photos of. Urgh, it’s all so horrible, the characters onscreen would say, and with that, people in the audience would wince. Grow up. It’s the most interesting thing about the film. There’s a morbid fascination with those strange experiments. You’ll see old men sunning themselves on the Costa del Sol reading trashy books about them. The History Channel shows a documentary on ‘Nazi Doctors’ Most Extreme Experiments’ at least twice a week. Scarcely is the subject treated tastefully and not exploited for entertainment. But those books and documentaries or superhero origin stories are bearable because they grip you. It’s the morbid fascination. But to use the Nazi experiments as a hook for a tedious love triangle between the three agents doesn’t mesh. Perhaps it did in the Israeli original, but not here over in Hollywood.
That opening shot on the airstrip is in the past, as is the kidnapping of the Nazi doctor in East Berlin plot. These scenes are peppered with those from the present. Tom Wilkinson and Helen Mirren play the older versions of those Mossad agents and, as always, they’re both very good. They nail the accents. They’re subtle enough so you know they aren’t from England or America, but without ever descending into patronisation. Unfortunately, the narrative they inhabit is even less interesting than the flashbacks: Mirren and Wilkinson’s daughter is releasing a book of how the trio captured the Nazi doctor and killed him. It unearths emotions they haven’t faced for a long time, etc. It’s just all so serious – which is fine, but it’s a pretty cliché and flat serious.
As the majority is in the past, it means we get more Sam Worthington than Tom Wilkinson. The man struggles with poignancy. He’s the John Cena of acting.
The other two fare better, in particular young Stephen. He has a way of rolling his ‘r’s’ to infinity when angry. It makes him sound like a grumpy bear. The transitions between his young and old versions are almost seamless because of this vocal link. And that’s some compliment, as he shares the role with Wilkinson.
In spite of the decent acting (bar Worthington), the direction falters. There are many missed opportunities for tension and development, like a sparring fight between Stephan and David that escalates into something a little more vicious. Such moments are often crammed into montages, to make way for more brooding shots of people looking at each other. However, the most persistently annoying trait is the soundtrack. The score will accompany the most mundane of household chores. It’s a forced seriousness, which only contributes to the stale thriller stench.
It’s bewildering because the enclosed house they inhabit for the majority of the film has a tension device built into its very structure. The three are forced to stay inside, with their captive, for many, many months while they await an escape plan. They drive each other slowly mad as the love triangle collapses in upon itself. The house has a leaky roof, and pots and pans litter the floor to collect its drips. The sound they all make is like the ticking of a clock – the most effective diegetic tension building sound in cinema. So they tick away for the film, and you get used to the rhythm. Clink. Clonk. Clank. Clink. Clonk. Clank. But then, after a long time, you hear Clink… Clonk. Clink… Clonk. One of the drips has stopped. A pot has been moved. Someone is loose in the house. Unfortunately, you’d hardly noticed with that incessant musical bed over the top of everything anybody does.
The Debt does contain a neat twist near the end and any film that plays with the plausibility of entire scenes it has shown you (Rashomon style) will always get points. But it’s just all so dull. Seek out the original, because it’s probably a lot better. Foreign films usually are.
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