Every action has a reaction. It may not be immediate and it may not be apparent, but it will happen and the consequences of the action can be far reaching. This forms the basic premise for the 2011 film The Debt.
Three young Mossad agents Rachel, Stephen and David (Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington) are sent to Soviet East Berlin in 1965 to track down and return to Israel with a Nazi war criminal, Doctor Bernhardt. Despite careful planning and execution the operation hits a snag. They must hold onto the Nazi until another opportunity to escape East Berlin. After some time the old Nazi tries to escape and is apparently killed by Rachel. They return home as heroes and their reputation and status is assured for the rest of their lives. Intertwined with the 1965 story is the story set thirty-two years later featuring the three agents (Helen Mirren,Tom Wilkinson and Cairan Hinds) what they are doing and the scars they all carry,both physical and mental. The beginning of the present day story opens with David dying suddenly. This leads to a self-evaluation by Rachel who is now the subject of a successful book based on her heroics. The two story lines run in parallel which slowly uncovers the real events in East Berlin and how they shaped the lives of the three agents.
This is a film where everything comes together beautifully. Directed by John Madden, a director who learned his craft in UK television before moving on to Shakespeare In Love, Mrs Brown and recently The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (reviewed here on Moviescramble by Paul). He is very much an actors director, giving them the freedom and space to develop their characters. His style, as far as I can tell from this, is not to force the eye to stray from the central performances but to reinforce the mood created by the story and the characterisations. The screenplay and film are a reworking of a 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov (The Debt). Current hot screenplay writers Matthew Vaughn an Jane Goldman take on the writing duties. Having not seen the original I cannot comment on the similarities between the two versions. The US version is tightly scripted with the two strands of the story inter-twinning with ease. Each cut from 1965 to 1997 is handled beautifully. The story moves along at a brisk pace and keeps your attention throughout. This is a very nice piece of writing.
The main actors are all good in this. The stand out performances come from the female leads. Rachel is played brilliantly by Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain. Helen Mirren is watch-able in almost everything she does and this is no exception. Her performance as the conflicted older woman, trying to come to terms with her past, the present and how her decisions will affect not only her but all around her. Jessica Chastain is one of the new major talents to emerge over the last few years alongside this film she has had stand out parts in The Help, Take Shelter, Coriolanus and Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Her performance as young Rachel is right up there with Helen Mirren’s performance. Her mix of vulnerable and determined gives the character real depth. The male leads are not overshadowed by the strong female leads in any way. Tom Wilkinson and Cairan Hinds are on top form. Both.in their own ways, convey the world weariness that comes with he burdens of the past. Sam Worthington as the young David gives the best performance I have seen of him. I haven’t been overly impressed with his performances in the past so it was good to see something good for a change. Young Stephen is played by Marton Csokas, an actor I was only familiar with from supporting roles in Kingdom of Heaven and Timeline (Fire the night arrows!). He was a real surprise, giving a highly polished and mature performance as the leader and main decision maker of the Mossad agents.
Overall the type of film that would stand up to repeated viewing. definitely worth a watch. Recommended.