Originally set for release in 2010, John Madden's The Debt, an English language version of Israeli film Ha-Hov, has had its release date moved more than once. Such delays are usually not a good sign, especially when the move is from fall to the end of August, usually considered a dumping ground for projects that studios want to die quietly. However, Madden's film actually belongs in the company of The Road and this spring's The Adjustment Bureau, in that it's a very solid film with generally effective direction and performances.
Opening in the late 60s, before quickly jumping to 1997, The Debt traces lives of three Mossad agents tasked with tracking down Dieter Vogel, who earned the nickname the Surgeon of Birkenau during World War II for his sadistic experiments on prisoners. In the years since the mission, Rachel (Helen Mirren/Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Tom Wilkinson/Marton Csokas), and David (Ciaran Hinds/Sam Worthington) have become heroes; Rachel's daughter has even written a book detailing the lives of the trio over the course of the mission. Unbeknownst to everyone but the three, however, is a secret that may or may not be coming back to haunt the three agents.
Before I continue, I'll confess that it doesn't really take much work to figure out the most basic details of the agents' secret. Thankfully, Madden and co. play the script, adapted by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan, straight to the point where the film's effectiveness does not hinge on the twist. Instead, The Debt is more concerned with creating the right atmosphere, which it certainly does. From the shabby looking interiors in the main flashback, to the muted colors in nearly every frame, Madden and DP Ben Davis more than convincingly capture the bleak look and feel of East Berlin. There may be a certain slickness to the story telling and editing, but the film is still appropriately gritty and free of sensationalism. Even when we're shown a key scene twice, almost shot-for-shot, there's still a sense of foreboding tension. It also manages to jump between time periods without resorting to cheap amounts of summary about the past. What could have been an overly-talky, exposition-filled story is instead a very well-paced Cold War thriller that breezes through its 114 minute run time with few dips in energy.
The generally fine ensemble is but another plus. Characters are not rendered with as much depth as the script suggests (young Rachel's moments of fragility, young David's unexplained distance from others), but the actors are more than convincing with what they're given. Mirren, as always, is reliable as the tough and conflicted Rachel of the film's present, while Wilkinson and Hinds do what they can with what amounts to barely any screen time. But if the older versions of the agents aren't given as much time to make an impression, thankfully their younger selves do. Chastain, in yet another completely different role, is both graceful and tough as Rachel, while Sam Worthington gives a surprisingly solid turn as David. Csokas is good as well, although his role feels the least conflicted of the three, so he's given less to work with. The real star of the film, though, is none other than its villain, played by Jesper Christensen. As Vogel, he makes a compelling shift from deranged hostage to sly manipulator. The way he tries to wear down his captors is supremely unnerving to watch, even if he too is somewhat lacking in depth. So even though the character might at times verge on being a dark cartoon, Christensen makes it convincing to watch. The writing may never effectively bring out Rachel's occasional breakdowns, but when Chastain and Christensen interact, the film at least shows us how intimidating certain people can be, even when they're completely helpless.
It's these interactions that make me wish that The Debt had given its characters more room to become fully rounded. The material here could be nicely expanded into a longer film, or maybe even a three or four part miniseries, quite comfortably. Watching Vogel mess with the agents is one of the film's highlights, but it could have allowed for some truly masterful filmmaking and acting had it been given more room to play out. Instead, the film reduces itself to being more of a fun and gritty, albeit inconsequential, potboiler. There are issues of truth and justice raised, but the film only introduces them in key moments, never delving deeper. When Wilkinson and Mirren have an argument regarding what ought to be done, it feels much too quick considering what's at stake. And despite its generally strong execution, there are a handful of scenes that get overheated, with jarring cuts and unnecessary amounts of noise. I suppose this was Madden's way of showing the stifling nature of the agents' lives once they become trapped inside their own headquarters, but when put up against the film's less bombastic scenes designed to do the same thing, it feels out of place.
All in all, though, it's hard to deny that The Debt is ultimately a success. It tackles its subject matter appropriately, if a bit on the shallow side, and has a cast full of solid performances, even if not everyone is used to their best ability (Ciaran Hinds in particular). And, by not letting the story exist solely to build up to a twist, the film feels more watchable. There's no big surprise that would make the The Debt less compelling on a second viewing, and the story goes to a rather effective, unhurried ending once the twist is revealed. So even though it may not be the potential awards contender that some were once predicting it to be, The Debt is a nicely executed, mature thriller, even if it isn't necessarily must-see filmmaking.