This remake of a 2008 Israeli film by John Madden is a peculiar and initially compelling blend of heavy duty dramatic material filtered through Frederick Forsyth-esque thriller tropes. Madden, the bland auteur of such kitsch as Shakespeare in Love (1997) and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001), is on the face of it an odd choice to try and compound such elements. Madden's prestigious, TV and theater-burnished aura of class was probably sought because The Debt requires a strong and dexterous dramatic touch as well as a solid craftsman, encompassing as it does such weighty themes as Holocaust angst, generational responsibility, and the moral phthisis engendered by living with lies, self-betrayal, and sexual and emotional jealousy. The Debt depicts a team of three Mossad agents who have been lionised for decades for tracking down and killing Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a notorious Josef Mengele-type German war criminal, whom they discovered working as a gynaecologist in East Berlin. Opening in the mid-‘90s, it depicts the three heroes in haggard late middle age. Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) is being feted once again because her daughter Sarah’s (Romi Aboulafia) book about the mission has become a hit. Her ex-husband Stephen Gold (Tom Wilkinson) is still a Mossad bigwig but confined to a wheelchair after a car bombing. He pays a call to the third member of the old team, David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds), or, rather, has his young goons come to fetch him, but David steps in front of a truck rather than talk with Stephen. It’s clear that something has haunted all three heroes for a long time, leaving them even more gnarled and variously battle-scarred than they should be, but just what can only be explicated through a long flashback to the original mission, where Rachel, Stephen, and David are played by Jessica Chastain, Martin Csokas, and Sam Worthington.
This central movement of period action is by far and away the most interesting portion of The Debt, even if it essentially riffs on some very familiar ideas. Chastain’s Rachel acts as a patient to get close to Vogel, and she and her partners kidnap him, after she pumps him full of a drug to make it look like he’s having a heart attack. There follows a solid piece of plain suspense-mongering as the trio try to get Vogel out of East Berlin by sneaking him aboard a train at one of the points where the West Berlin rail system overlaps the Berlin Wall. But the film’s most memorable scenes come aptly when Rachel must prostrate herself before Vogel and undergo examination by him. This coldly phobic, maliciously funny exploitation of the notion of having a Nazi pervert gaze at your lady parts, a twist on the Marathon Man’s famous “is it safe?” scene, seems wittier and darker than the movie really deserves (it comes right out of the original), especially when vaginal anxiety gives way to vagina dentata (and prefiguring the way Rachel condenses post-Holocaust Jewish responsible in vividly maternal terms). Prone vulnerable body of woman playing patient/victim suddenly becomes lethal instrument of vengeance, as Chastain pulls off a move worthy of a Hong Kong movie heroine, catching Vogel between her legs and jabbing him in the neck with a syringe. Once the team is forced to hide Vogel in their safehouse until Stephen can arrange some way of smuggling him out, The Debt boils down for a time into to a Pinter-esque drama pitting a captive who is nonetheless a malignant expert in head-fucking, against righteous avengers whose hang-ups and youthful weaknesses conspire to corrode their effectiveness.
The Debt does actually take on some fascinating and rarely treated notions: what if we take on a mission of great import, with a sense of purpose and right on our side, and yet we ourselves are inadequate to the task? Is the appearance of justice being done really the same, or at least a sufficient substitute, to its actually being achieved? The team screwed up badly, we learn, as Vogel’s psychological taunts finally infuriated David, whose brooding, obsessive dedication to the mission proved to have dangerously febrile underpinnings, and this in turn gave Vogel a chance to escape. The shamed and sullen trio decide to tell a false story about Rachel killed Vogel as he ran off, the same story they’re telling thirty years later. But the publicity of Sarah’s daughter’s book seems to have stirred Vogel in his hiding place in a Ukrainian nursing home, causing Stephen to insist Rachel go after him and settle the account once and for all. Chastain’s excellent performance confirms the hints of The Tree of Life (2011) that she’s a star to watch in sustaining a believable characterisation as Rachel, intensely vulnerable and yet able to muster resolve superior to those around her when the going gets tough. Although she and Mirren don’t really look much alike, the older actress does a good job transposing and shading her enjoyably unlikely aging assassin role from RED (2010), to extend the coherent characterisation of Rachel as someone whose fighting gumption rests uneasily alongside her emotional vulnerability. To a lesser extent, Chastain’s Antipodean co-stars likewise sustain believability, whereas both Hinds and Wilkinson never quite get to be more than respectable actors filling out the cast. But the film begins to conspire against them all fairly early, as an utterly superfluous and badly drawn romantic triangle develops between the team: David’s reticence keeps him from responding to Rachel’s obvious attraction, so Stephen is able to seduce her, getting her pregnant, and whilst Rachel continues to prefer David, she will eventually marry Stephen for her daughter’s sake in a marriage that proves calamitous with such misaligned attractions weighed on top of an already palpable guilt. The notion of watching three official heroes disintegrate psychologically and emotionally could have yielded a fascinating coda.
Unfortunately, and all too predictably, once The Debt moves on from its flavourful period action into ground where it ought to deepen and portray will to action petering out in disillusionment and frustration, a la Spielberg’s much superior (and obvious influence) Munich (2005), Madden’s film disintegrates entirely in a welter of weak soap operatic flashbacks and a ludicrous climax, as the filmmakers try to have their moralistic cake and eat it too. Perhaps co-producer and screenwriter Mathew Vaughn (who adapted the original screenplay along with regular writing partner Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan) might have beaten this film into shape if he had directed it, but as it stands he bears part of the blame for the overloaded script. Madden’s lacks as both artist and technician show through here, as the portrayals of Rachel, David, and Stephen post-mission are not given any sufficient space to develop their theoretical guilt and mental fatigue, their haunted ménage a trois never develops beyond the stage of bestseller window dressing, and after plodding through some bog-ordinary spy business, an interesting moral conundrum is set up only to be thrust aside with a wrap-up so painfully neat it might as well have a red bow on it. Rachel approaches the elderly Vogel in the nursing home with lethal injection in hand, turning the tables of helpless victim and ruthless assassin mediated through inescapable historical duties – except of course the potential victim isn’t really Vogel, who actually lurks upstairs, schlepped in old age make-up but still robust enough to give Rachel a suitably gruelling fair fight with geriatric wrestling and scissor wounds that serve as neat stigmata for Rachel as penitent and holy avenger. Even if the film’s tone hadn’t turned so facetious by this stage, it would be hard to take this sub-The Boys From Brazil climax seriously. Much like its characters sell themselves out for the sake of not being seen to fail, The Debt sells itself out for the sake of trying to be a hit and a serious movie all at once.