The Debt – 2011
Directed by John Madden
Starring Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Worthington, Martin Csokas, Jesper Christensen
Written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Peter Straughan
After seeing her ridiculously dangerous beauty in the movie RED, I anticipated seeing Helen Mirren as an Israeli operative in The Debt would be at least as thrilling. And if it was, it was for a different reason. As the elder Rachel Singer, Mirren is layered with regret in the opening words of the film. Her daughter is talking about a book she has written about a mission that her parents took part in back in 1965. That mission, to infiltrate Soviet Era East Germany, kidnap Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Christensen) and bring him to the homeland for trial. The members of the team, Stefan Gold (Csokas), David Peretz (Worthington) and Singer (Chastain) are not entirely familiar with one another. Gold has known Peretz for 2 years and still knows very little about him. Adding Singer to the mix tips the scale for everyone, and the tension is palpable.
Back in the present, we see the mature Miss Singer asked to read for her daughter at a release party. The event she recounts, a grand escape attempt by Vogel, which resulted in the scar that she still wears today, is concluded in the book with the death of the war criminal. After the event, Singer is informed by her now ex-husband Gold (Wilkinson) that Peretz (Hinds) has committed suicide. Singer’s mind then goes back on a journey. Where it takes her is somewhat obvious, but entertaining nonetheless due to the acting talent involved.
This movie really belongs to Mirren and Chastain, and they make the best past / future combination since Winslet and Dench in the wonderful Iris. The way that they look at people, or rather, look slightly away from them, indicative of a weight of a suffering that she can never be unburdened from. Carrying a scar that she easily could have had repaired, it acts as a Scarlet Letter of a secret shame.
Chastain’s performance is remarkable and surprisingly layered. Placing herself routinely in the most compromising position possible, it is as clever an abduction scenario as has been filmed in some time. Her back and forth between the two men on her team is confusing, given that it took place during a time in which women were just beginning to express their liberation from the accepted norms. She seems as paralyzed by her choice in who to love as she does by her past.
Mirren, with the relative burden of the past looming even larger through the onset of years, discovers through information by her ex-husband a secret that Peretz kept. This leads her on a journey to the Ukraine to discover the truth for herself.
The other performances in the film are nearly as good as the two leads. Worthington, in particular, shows that the exorbitant grosses of Terminator Salvation, Avatar and Clash of the Titans were at least partly due to his ability to form a character out of limited resources. Hinds does not have much time to advance the character, but he does express the same sadness that his younger self does.
Wilkinson and Csokas give stoic portrayals of diplomats who have a larger purpose in mind. The plan hatched by that character seems rather foolish, but stranger things have happened.
Madden has made some great films (Mrs. Brown), some award-winning good films (Shakespeare in Love) and some questionable ones (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin). This film is assured, if predictable, and he benefits from some of the best veteran actors available, as well some potentially great actors. Giving Mirren, Chastain and Worthington room to breathe within their roles, he takes a rather ordinary plot and makes it somewhat significant.
(***1/2 out of *****)