Published Sep 01, 2011Being an adult espionage thriller about post-WWII Jewish rage, grief and reflection without ever directly assaying the subject in a traditional sense, The Debt tackles familiar cinematic territory with a new slant and enough respect for its audience not to reiterate historical titbits we're all well aware of. Instead, John Madden's remake of Israeli film Ha-Hov uses deliberately recondite character dynamics and interactions to relay emotional anxieties and hesitations about reactionary behaviour within the shell of a compelling and consistently tense mystery.
Framing the story in 1997, with Rachel Singer's (Helen Mirren) daughter writing a novel about her mother's spy background, we jump back to 1965 East Germany where the cool, confident Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas), stoic David Peretz (Sam Worthington) and Rachel (Jessica Chastain) enact a plan to kidnap a Nazi war criminal known for horrifying medical procedures. While the men deal with the practical applications of arranging transport and communications, Rachel spends her time feigning fertility issues in order to get close to their target at his medical practice.
To say that Jessica Chastain steals the show would be an understatement. Scenes where she tries to ward off discomfort and anxiety while being examined come off as singularly unnerving. She manages to balance tough and vulnerable without ever denying a humanitarian emotional core. This is particularly apparent in her reactions to shockingly anti-Semitic goading tactics from the doctor post-kidnap.
It's her performance, along with Mirren's modern day depiction of the same character, which helps add a dimension of much-needed human complexity to what is merely an above-average, somewhat predictable thriller. In fact, what stands out about The Debt is this ability to mix the unspoken thoughts and repressed emotions of capable actors with taut scenarios.
Short of greatness due to the tenuous handling of emotional material, this parable of the past as a direct signifier of the present is a welcome and dignified selection for a smart audience looking for thoughtful entertainment without too much arty pretence. (Alliance)