Wednesday, August 31, 2011

True Lies: Helen Mirren & Co Can’t Handle the Truth in “The Debt”

For the longest time I was trying to figure out what exactly the debt was in “The Debt.” Now that I’ve seen the movie and witnessed all its revelations I now know. And what I definitely know is that the old timers in the Academy are going to eat this film up, as long as they remember it four months from now. It sort of reminded me of “Munich” meets “The Reader” but with enough suspenseful thrills to fill in any lulls the story might have offered. Having premiered at the Toronto Film Festival back in 2010, it is finally available for us fine folks here in the States and is certainly worth the wait.

“The Debt” revolves around three young Mossad secret agents on a mission to find and capture a Nazi war criminal and bring him back to stand trial. The story begins in 1966 as the three agents Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephen (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) come back from what appears to be a successful mission. Thirty years later (and portrayed by older, different actors) the three retired agents seem to be hiding something. The past is not done with these three. Rachel’s (also played by Helen Mirren) daughter has just published a book about her mother’s successful assignment, but like the scar on Rachel’s cheekbone, memories don't just go away. In fact it’s too hard for David (Ciaran Hinds) so he steps in front of a bus. Rachel and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) need to get to the bottom of this and go back and confront their past. The story flashes back and forth between the years 1997 and the 60s until it’s slowly revealed what this trio’s mission was all about.

David and Rachel were undercover as man and wife. Their target, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) is a fertility doctor with whom Rachel makes regular appointments. She has an entire backstory and her scenes with this man, in a completely vulnerable state with her legs up on stirrups, are just simply fascinating to watch. Jessica Chastain is simply one to watch after already having wonderful roles in The Help and The Tree of Life. Things seem to be going fine for these three young agents until… well that would spoil the fun now wouldn’t it? Let it be said that director John Madden (the guy who made Shakespeare in Love, not that football guy) stages things, sometimes more than once, so well that we’re always aware of what’s going on and is edited to sustain maximum suspense. We get some scenes completely out of context and then are shown them again for the purpose of knowing things now that we didn’t know then.

I was actually pretty impressed with how suspenseful a movie could be when we know that the three heroes make it at least until the year 1997. I mean how enthralling could a story about three agents on a secret mission be if we know they make it out alive? It’s a bold choice for the screenwriters to make. I’m even more impressed to learn two of writers have previously churned out the scripts for “Kick-Ass” and “X-Men First Class.” Those would be Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman. Peter Straughan is credited as well. And not only is the action and drama staged so well, but its all accompanied by another winning score from Thomas Newman. His suspenseful music fits the action extremely well.

I’m not too shocked to learn that “The Debt” is in fact a remake of a 2007 film of the same name from Israel. In an age of remakes and reimaginings and revampings it’s to be expected. But what’s not expected is when a film can be remade for an American audience who would have never even known about its source material. Here is a great film, a wonderful little thriller, who can now be enjoyed by film fans across the country. It offers exquisite performances, terrific suspense, a taught script and a wonderful music to accompany it all. It’s certainly unworthy of its dumping ground release date, but it’s wonderful filmmaking to be sure and that’s that truth. GRADE: B+


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