I am rather feeling that I am getting repetitive when I say “remakes are a dime-a-dozen” these days, but this is actually fact. I usually don’t like remakes, though there are a few that were arguably better than the original in my view (John Carpenter‘s “the Thing“, Cronenberg‘s “The Fly“, the Coen’s “True Grit” and the more recent “I Spit on Your Grave“ to name some). Director John Madden’s “The Debt” is a remake of the Israeli film with the same name by Assaf Bernstein; and this is one time that I haven’t seen the 2007 original to make a good comparison. The screenplay co-written by Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass) seems to be quite competent and credible in rendering the right tone, mood and feel of an espionage drama about honor and atonement.
The film begins in 1997, when news reaches retired Mossad spies Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Estefan (Tom Wilkinson) about their former colleague David (Ciaran Hinds). The trio (then played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Tsokas, Sam Worthington, Clash of the Titans) had been adored for 30 years by their people and their government for their role in a top secret mission they undertook in 1966, when they tracked down a Nazi war criminal named Vogel (Jesper Christensen) in the then country East Berlin. At unimaginable risks and some personal sacrifice, they accomplished their mission with some different end result…but did they? The past threatens to catch up with them, as the tale is told through two different time periods. Secrets are revealed and even more personal revelations threaten the revered status of Rachel and Estefan…
“The Debt” is actually two stories at its core. One is an espionage thriller that had occurred in the past; as our three lead characters were young Israeli operatives on a mission to find a Nazi war criminal. The second story is more like a human drama about honor and atonement. The direction does an excellent job in interweaving the two stories together as I felt that it complements the other to bring forth the characters in the story. Themes of consequences, of sacrifice and of atonement are rich throughout the film. There is a very human touch about the film’s screenplay, you see the characters grow as you learn to accept their story, people do change throughout the years, and sometimes the person we were years ago won’t necessarily be the person we are today.
I suppose what really engaged me with the film is the fact that the characters drive the story; you see them make mistakes and they remain loyal to their purpose. There is way the direction made the younger agents different from the retired agents. From the film’s one side of the story, the younger ones seemed to be naïve and they firmly believe that they are serving a higher purpose, and their stance is tested by a need to be successful; they are ambitious, sometimes cynical and believe that they need to honor their country. This part of the film delivers most of the tension and the action, as they move about Berlin. The older versions of our characters are more or less, more emotional, but not any less ambitious than their younger versions. The older David, Rachel and Estefan did seem to have been shaped by age, and may have become more courageous in dealing with consequences. Extreme situations sometimes demand irresolution, and the direction was superb in bringing forth the conscience, the confusion and the fear that such an assignment can bring an agent. The second part of the film brings forth a lot of humanity and intense drama into the fold. Perhaps it is just me, but the film reminded me a bit of “Lust Caution”.
The film is also excellently acted. Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Morton Tsokas portrayals were very strong; they embodied the naivety, the misguided courage, the righteousness, pride and the confusion that may come from an assignment such as this. The script brings into the drama the very humanity that made the characters breath, as you see them make the most of their situation and sometimes, they learn to find comfort from each other. Mirren, Wilkinson and Hinds may have some limited screen time together, but their interactions add more narrative impact than one could expect for a rather episodic and fragmented style of storytelling. David remains the conscience and Estefan, the rather more practical of the three. Rachel finds her true strength in the years past, and she is definitely not the same woman as she was before. The direction by Madden makes the stories more of a ‘coming of age’ theme for the female lead, and how it would never be too late to atone for something; all one needs is the correct motivation to find the righteous and honorable, yet more difficult path. The one thing I thought lacked some further development was the way Rachel fell into the arms of comfort, I thought the supposed love triangle between the trio was a little too convenient, but it still did serve a lot of impact in the narrative.
“The Debt” is a great film that is part espionage thriller and part human drama. I was very impressed how the film made its characters deep, strong and real; it also helped that it made the two time periods an expression of how the past can define someone, and yet, one’s choices are the truly the things that can define a person. People are made by their experiences, and one needs to follow one’s heart. This film succeeds in many different levels, it is thrilling as an espionage drama and yet touching as a study of two different periods. “The Debt” defines honor and this debt needed to be paid….no matter how long it took; sometimes, a debt is harder to repay when it is owed by oneself....
Even the best secret agents carry a debt from a past mission. Rachael Singer must now face up to hers... 'The Debt' directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) is the story of what happens when the lie you've been living for decades finally catches up to you. What do you do? The year is 1997. Rachel (Helen Mirren) and her husband Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) retired Mossad secret agents learn that their former colleague, … more
I go to movies all the time while in release, one to two a week. Seeing Jessica Chastain in both The Help, and Tree of Life, made me decide to see The Debt, my favorite moviegoing experience of the year. Director John Madden directed Shakespeare in Love which won 7 Academy Awards including, Best Actress for Gwyneth Paltrow, and Best Supporting Actress for Judi Dench. He also directed Prime Suspect 3 starring both Helen Mirren and Ciaran Hinds, who both star in The Debt; and … more
Star Rating: According to Wikipedia, the modern-day definition of a hero is a character that, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, displays courage and the willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. The Debt tells the story of three people who may or may not fit this description. I have to be careful with my wording here, since the film depends on a great deal of secrecy – and to my great surprise and delight, very few … more
THE DEBT Written by Matthew Vaughan, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan Directed by John Madden Starring Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain and Tom Wilkinson Stephan Gold: Truth is a luxury. Debt has always been something of a dirty word but hopefully the anxiety it inspires in people won’t keep them away from the new John Madden film, entitled THE DEBT. Those who do see it will be swept up in a whole other kind of restless stress, the kind only a good thriller … more
The Debt, an exceptional thriller, works on many levels. Its structure has just enough pay-attention moments that some viewers will be confused if they don’t. That’s big plus for me. The plot is about a search by three Mossad agents for a Nazi war criminal, the Surgeon of Birkenau. They plan to take him alive and return with him to Israel to stand trial. There are tense, queasy scenes that range from gynecology exams to insidious attempts to undermine the three by the doctor. There is … more