Director: John Madden
Cast: Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain
Watch The Debt online in the UK: Amazon Instant / TalkTalk TV / iTunes / Google Play
A trio of Mossad agents kidnapping a Nazi war criminal and holding him prisoner in the 1970s? Not the usual plot you expect from a film, even if it is a remake of a 2007 Israeli movie of the same name. But the most surprising thing about The Debt? Sam Worthington can act. Like, properly act. With an accent and everything.
Worthington plays David Peretz, one of three Israelis sent on a secret mission to bring Doctor Dieter Vogel (Christensen) out of hiding, across the Berlin border and into a courtroom. Joining the quiet Mossad are the suave Stefan (Csokas) and determined Rachel (Chastain).
Jumping from the mission to the tortured modern-day trio, John Madden’s thriller deftly hops between its old and young cast, using the structure to build up narrative tension. It helps that both ensembles are equally convincing – Wilkinson, Mirren and Hinds bring a much-needed contrast to the urgent acting of the younger group (even if they do look nothing alike).
And that’s the secret to The Debt’s suspense: keeping things focused on the characters. While Jesper Christensen’s “Surgeon of Birkenau” is a horribly unnerving villain, Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan’s screenplay uses the trio’s awkward love triangle to drive events in the 1970s forward. Infertility and infidelity raise their heads as Jessica Chastain steaks the show, leading to nerve-jangling confrontations over force-fed rice pudding and (most chilling of all) a gynaecology appointment.
It’s hard to believe that the director of Shakespeare in Love could pull off a spy thriller, but The Debt stands up well against Steven Spielberg’s superior Munich. Like Munich, it’s more a meditation on morals than an action film, but Madden still gets your pulse racing. A simple set piece at a train station stands out as superbly shot and edited, systematically firing off tension in 14 second bursts of noise.
But the tension is restricted to those scenes in the past – the dingy apartment, the period detail, the claustrophobic set. While Madden’s structure is sound and the older actors are up to the task, the script descends into silliness come the present day final act and almost ruins everything. Fortunately, Thomas Newman’s score keeps things ticking to the end titles.
The Debt still deserves credit, though. In a sea of overly similar action blockbusters, its premise makes for a provocative bit of fiction. And with its painful emotions and intelligent dilemmas, the middle act is damned near perfect. Amazingly, that’s the bit with Sam Worthington in it.
The Debt owes a lot to Munich, but pays off its promise with surprising panache It’s not a classic, but it will go down in history as the film that proved Sam Worthington could act.