Today: July 24, 2024

Debt, The

While a certain John le Carré adaptation takes all the limelight at the moment, it may be a surprise that there’s another espionage related thriller about to hit cinemas. The Debt

While a certain John
le Carré adaptation takes all the limelight at the moment, it may be a surprise
that there’s another espionage related thriller about to hit cinemas. The Debt may be an ultimately less impressive
tonal piece about the dark secrets of the spy game than the much-heralded Tinker
Tailor Soldier Spy, but for the most part it’s still an admirable film thanks
to its central idea about guilt and the nature of evil.

Erring on the more conventional side of the spy genre with
energetic action scenes rather than the slow burning manipulation of George
Smiley and company in Tinker, The Debt is
hardly groundbreaking. It feels more familiar, something we’ve seen elsewhere
before. More Bond or Bourne than the claustrophobic atmosphere of Tinker. And
while obvious comparisons and differences will be made to Tinker, to give The
Debt the credit it deserves, when it
settles down to focus on psychology rather than physiology, it blossoms into
something rather unexpected.

It is rather frustrating to report therefore that just as
the film reaches these unexpected heights, the filmmakers lose sight of the
central idea, failing to have the strength of their convictions and stick with
the verbal and psychological confrontations rather than run of the mill action
sequences. Disappointingly, The Debt becomes
a staccato affair, disjointed in the last quarter from the original tone of the
film. Had the filmmakers had faith in the confined spaces and mental battles, The
Debt may have been as much a heralded
spy thriller as le Carré’s adaptation.

Set across two time periods, the narrative jumps between the
story of three Mossad agents who in 1965-1966 plan to capture a notorious Nazi
war criminal, Dieter Vogel, who is hiding incognito in Cold War East Berlin,
and the same three agents who in 1997 have long been venerated for their
success in bringing Vogel to justice. When the unexpected death of one of the
members of the team begins to unearth a darker truth of what really happened in
the ’60s, the two remaining Mossad agents are called back into action.

Both John Madden’s
direction and the script penned by Matthew
Vaughan
, Jane Goldman and Tinker scribe Peter Straughan, work in harmony to contrast fact with
interpretation. Scenes are presented as flashbacks but with alterations in
plot, thus separating account from truth. Without spoiling the film’s twists, The
Debt deals with the pressures of
honour and loyalty. Can you hide the truth and live a lie for the benefit of
your country and your people? Is a personal guilt the price to pay for a
nation’s justice?

More than anything, The Debt is a study of guilt. On one side there is Rachel, David and
Stefan, whose decision to tell a lie for the benefit of their mission, haunts
them for years to come, while on the other is their target, a seemingly
remorseless animal who feels no guilt about his actions. As the “The Surgeon of Birkenau” Jesper Christensen is positively repulsive. His character embodies the spirit
of the infamous Josef Mengele, a character who shows no compassion for his
victims and still holds a poisonous attitude that typified Nazi ideology. His
assertion of insane supremacist views seeps through the screen in a genuinely
unnerving manner.

This is brilliantly contrasted
with the angelic performance of Jessica
Chastain
as the younger Rachel. Alternately she is compassionate but open
to the vicious manipulations of Vogel’s taunts at Jewish character. Also in
Vogel’s firing line are David and Stefan. David is a reclusive figure,
reluctant to reveal his motivations. Sam
Worthington
who plays the younger David is admirable in his reserved manner
of portrayal and adds the emotional heart of the film as someone so tormented
he cannot bring himself to tell a lie. Marton
Csokas
adds an air of arrogance and authority as the younger Stefan that
also muddies the relationship between the three.

When Helen Mirren,
Ciarin Hinds and Tom Wilkinson are given their time as
the older versions of Rachel, David and Stefan, they are of course expectedly
brilliant. They are all fine actors with great pedigree though they don’t
overshadow their younger counterparts as you might expect.

The Debt is a
tense and sweaty thriller of the mind for the first hour that then spirals out
of control into a vengeance action thriller that feels ill-suited to Mirren’s
talents. When more focused on the psychology of facing evil, The Debt is an admirable piece of work that is
rather undone by a misjudged and disappointingly conventional ending.

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