Scares and surprises overwhelm a moral dilemma
English director John Madden’s The Debt, which is the remake of an Israeli film, delivers in flashbacks a suspenseful tale of Mossad agents in 1966 capturing a Nazi war criminal — an evil concentration camp doctor –with the aim of spiriting him back to Israel to go on trial there. The three agents assigned to carry out this exploit are a kind of uneasy ménage à trois and their relationship is delivered with much emotional detail. Too much, in fact, because though Madden ramps up the action element, thus overwhelming the moral dilemma at the heart of the original story, the personal conflicts between David, Rachel, and Stephen tend to dwarf their puny operation, which is made even punier by their Nazi’s confidence and menace. There are a lot of elements at war here, and The Debt leaves one unsatisfied despite multiple payoffs.
The film begins in 1997 when Rachel (Helen Mirren) is the subject of a new book by her daughter detailing her legendary killing of the Nazi doctor when he attempted to escape from the Mossad trio’s clutches. Rachel’s ex-husband Stephen (Tom Wilkinson) shows up with the news that their 1966 colleague David (Ciarán Hinds) has just committed suicide. Flashbacks begin to tell us about what happened in East Berlin in 1966 when the three agents — the young Rachel played appealingly by Jessica Chastain (of Tree of Life), young Stephen with sensitivity and mystery by Sam Worthington (of Avatar), and young David (least interesting of the three) by Marton Csokas — come to nab the evil (and fictional) Dr. Bernhardt, AKA Dieter Vogel, known as “the surgeon of Birkenau, ” a man believed guilty of authoring the most heinous “experiments” on Jewish concentration camp prisoners. They find Vogel hiding almost in plain sight as a practicing East Berlin gynecologist, and they aim to spirit him out of the country using a West Berlin subway that runs briefly through the eastern sector. This part of the action is exciting and suspenseful, if, like the rest, conventional.
The surprising element of the flashback, coming from an Israeli tale, is that Vogel’s deprecating remarks to his captors about the Jewish lack of initiative almost ring true given the outcome. The Mossad agents are embarked on a dangerous mission. Rachel goes to the ex-Nazi’s gynecological office several times, allowing herself to be examined and even injected in her private parts by this monster, who in his new pose still seems full of veiled hostility. As the horrific Nazi doctor Danish actor Jesper Christensen is very good at keeping his scripted monstrousnenss from being too obvious. Chastain has a strong edge of a different sort as the undercover female agent who puts up a brave front despite being terrified. Later Vogel’s moments as a captive with both Rachel and her colleague David are also good, and as the younger David, Sam Worthington is memorable. Nothing wrong with the actors here except that Mirren and Wilkenson are distractingly familiar faces, who seem to have sprouted accents in English their younger counterparts lacked. The several crucial moments when the elaborate kidnapping plot goes awry provide lots of suspense.
The trouble with all this however is that the Mossad agents’ operation ultimately dwindles away in the telling — even though it seems more interesting than the merely gimmicky drama of the 1997 sequel, when the action seems far too muscular for the much older people involved. The third agent, the exploit’s ostensible leader Stephen Gold (Marton Csokas; later, Wilkinson), never quite engages our sympathies at either time; as the older David, a glum Ciarán Hinds seems to suffer from an inordinate amount of stomach acidity. The complication of the 1966 ménage is that while Rachel and the enigmatic David are the more strongly attracted, it is the bossy but unappealing Stephen who gets Rachel pregnant. The interplay between Rachel, Stephen, and David is clearly important. Why, then, does it seem so extraneous to the operation to capture Vogel, and not apparently responsible for its glitches?
The director, John Madden, whose great success was Shakespeare in Love, keeps the shifts back and forth in time between Sixties and Nineties fluid, but the trouble is, this little operation pales not only compared to Spielberg’s epic revenge story in Munich, or the fabulous expoits of the “Jackel” in Assayas’ Carlos, but in relation to Vogel himeslf, who dominates every scene he’s in. Vogel’s status as a steely monster seems undimmed, despite the young Israelis’ bravery, even many years later. Deeper levels of self-scrutiny embedded in the original tale may have become muffled in its retelling in English as more of an action film. There is a sneaking suspicion that bringing together Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, who penned the provocative actioner Kick-Ass, together with Peter Straughan, who was responsible for the lame Men Who Stare at Goats, did not produce the happiest of creative writing alliances.
As the flashback reaches its conclusion what emerges is that the agents decided to fudge what actually happened. Their distortion of the facts has begun to eat away at them to different degrees decades later. There are big questions here. What’s more important, national pride, or the plain truth? A family’s serenity, or coming clean? But the new film ramps up the action and violence aspect, with the result that what may have been the original intention becomes a mere pretext or footnote. In doing this, despite slick editing, the storytelling comes to seem confused. There are other oddities. Mirren and Wilkinson develop intermittent accents in English that Chastain and Worthington lacked. The younger actors and Christensen are fine. Still, if action is to be welded to psychological complexity, we need the likes of the characters played for Tarantino by Christoph Waltz and Michael Fassbinder. In short, we need more pizazz and less conventionality.
The Debt is released in the UK 30th September 2011.
DIRECTOR: JOHN MADDEN
STARS: HELEN MIRREN, TOM WILKINSON, CIEREN HINDS, JESSICA CHASTAIN, SAM WORTHINGTON, JESPER CHRISTENSEN
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