We greet The Debt with a sense of relief, if only because its title could portend some hasty hectoring documentary about Congress figuring out its financial “super committee,” and this movie is something else.
It is actually Shakespeare in Love director John Madden’s version of the 2007 Israeli spy thriller Ha-Hov. The Debt isn’t the worst offender as far as colonizing remakes go, nor is it much to write home about. Madden’s movie is pedigreed, pulse-quickening and perfectly respectable. It has a good chance for some award consideration.
With Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington as their younger selves, Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds play three retired Mossad agents in the 1990s, haunted by a mission that went wrong in 1960s East Berlin. For reasons of narrative security, details need not be dwelled on here, except to say that this is also a love story—and a hate story. Madden and company do at least manage to fulfill the minimum required ick factor for any film involving the entrapment of a Nazi gynecologist. As the tokenish villain Dieter Vogel, Jesper Christensen provides a literal portrayal of the banality of evil.
Overall, The Debt reads as a sort of practice run at high seriousness from writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, of Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, and Peter Straughan, of The Men Who Stare at Goats. In a way, it’s OK if they need more practice; here, the script matters mostly for its stewardship of conceptual clarity. We could not ask for—nor want—a more direct description of moral ambiguity.
If there’s any challenge to be had from The Debt, it’s by the actors. They’re why we really watch: to discover what Chastain can do when not under the direction of Terrence Malick (plenty, and The Help didn’t quite count); whether Worthington is worthy (let’s say sure); who Csokas is exactly (the giver of this film’s nerviest performance, as it turns out); and how the elder trio maintains its poise in fake accents and a corseted, flashback-intensive structure.
When less engrossed, we may notice that this cast isn’t very Jewish. The movie doesn’t mind because its themes are so strenuously universal and pertain to problematic identity anyway. Fair enough, but that willful lack of texture carries over to setting, too. Neither the Cold War world nor the dubious 1990s nostalgia for it comes to life effectively.
There is a twist (although in this movie’s listless schematic diagram of moral compromise, it feels more like a slight bend) and a protracted geriatric grappling match that would be self-parodic even if something like it hadn’t already been done, for laughs, on Family Guy. But that goes to the theme again: how very unsettling, the settling of scores.