Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Debt

2010. Dir: John Madden. Starring: Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Martin Csokas and Tom Wilkinson. ●●●○○

Who would have thought I would spend a weekend watching two incredibly diverse films but find that both of them have deep parallels to another film I saw earlier in the year. In the case of The Debt thematically it couldn't be further from it's predecessor but if I say one of the similarities is rising star Jessica Chastain then you'll know I'm subconsciously drawn to Tree of Life, but the similarities don't end with the casting because as with Malick's free-associated meanderings there is a great movie hidden within a silly one. Only in the case of John Madden's latest it's centre is much less great and the wrapping infinitely sillier.

The film see-saws between a modern day (or mid 90's at least) Israel and 1960's East Berlin, between a trio of retired Mossad agents (Mirren, Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds) reminiscing and basking in the glory their younger selves (Chastain, Csokas and Worthington respectively) earned kidnapping the notorious Surgeon of Buckenwald, a nazi war criminal who comes across as a amalgamation of Eichmann and Josef Mengele (as played by Gregory Peck).

The Berlin scenes are very well handled, throwing us back to muscular espionage thrillers of the past, with cut wires and stolen cars each part of the plan to smuggle Vogel (Jesper Christiansen) and his captors across the border seems so precise in it's planning that the failure of the original mission and the days the three spend, cramped together enduring the verbal onslaught of their captured socio-path, more observant and insidious than the agents could have imagined. Chastain proves her mettle as an actress here, utterly captivating as the naive but steely Rachel, watch her haunted expression outside her gynaecological visits to Vogel and you can see why her star has risen so quickly.

There are some interesting plot developments in this section, Csokas ebbing of humanity Worthington's survivors guilt and the love triangle that develops between them even identifying the conflicted soul of Vogel but alas these all lead to nothing much as the film seems anxious to return to the present. Even the second act twist, the debt of the title came as an anticlimax as we'd virtually heard the details in Mirren and Wilkinson's meaty encounters.

You see after the mission Chastain and Csokas marry and have a child who later writes a book about their exploits, keeping them in the public eye long after they should have slipped into footnote lore, so when the threat of the extent of the mission failure looks set to go public they must take action to hide the truth. Between unnecessary dialogue and Mirren prancing around like a female, sexagenarian Bourne the plot disappears into a mess of it's own making so by the time the credits role instead of the indelible image of Chastain holding back her tears you've got old people wrestling. It's undignified.

Madden is as pedestrian a director as always, able to hold a scene but adding nothing that isn't in Matthew Vaugh, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughn's script.

It's probably worth waiting to see this one on TV, and even then I'd probably change channels about 15 minutes before the end. Might be worth chasing down the Israeli original Ha-Hov though.


TomS said...

Oh my... "Tree of Life" silly? That hurts, especially from a cinephile.... I have not seen "The Debt", so I cannot judge...but nothing draws me in...although I have liked a couple of John Madden's earlier films...

Runs Like A Gay said...

This pretty much stands alone within Madden's CV, although I've not seen Kill List.

I thought Tree of Life had a very silly bit - the Sean Penn/flashback to the beginning of the Universe - but ignoring that it has a spectacular central story about a 50's family. This film doesn't soar as high as that, but it still reminded me with that issue.