Sunday, 20 May 2012

Movie review: The Debt, dir John Madden (2010)

Jessica Chastain as young Rachel Singer in The Debt.
I watch a fair number of movies and I love spy thrillers and action movies; the Mission Impossible franchise with Tom Cruise is a favourite. I love the rapid pace and the unexpected events, and I have a geeky passion for the paraphernalia and subterfuge that characterise the world of spies. But it's not often that I write about such movies. The Debt is a bit different. It's a Miramax production, for a start, so it's already got the promise of arthouse quality in the credits. When I picked it up I also noticed on the cast list Sam Worthington, the Australian actor, and Helen Mirren, the famous British star. These things in themselves don't guarantee excellence, of course.

But this film's got it in spades. This is really a must-see movie, perhaps a sleeper (I had not heard of it although it came out two yeras ago). The movie is set in two eras. The age of youth for Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas) and David Peretz (Sam Worthington) takes place in 1965 when they are sent into Soviet-controlled East Berlin to extract a Nazi war criminal, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the 'Surgeon of Birkeanu', who conducted terrible experiments on Jews during the Holocaust years. There's plenty of action in the extraction, but more interesting for the viewer is the web of relationships that develop between the three Mossad agents, and between the Mossad agents and Vogel.

The three return to Israel to acclaim and then go about their lives. Rachel (now played by Helen Mirren) and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson, who is often used to play older, powerful men) stay in Israel but David (Ciaran Hinds) spends his life in many countries, wandering the world in a stateless quest for resolution. Rachel's daughter has published a book about the exploits of the young trio which tells the official story. But there's another story that we don't see until later and it is this true story that animates the three protagonists in their mature years, and plays a determining role in the way their lives unfold. This may appear to be elliptical, but that's for good reason. To tell the story in all its fascinating details would be to give away the game for those who have not yet seen it, and that would be a shame. You should watch this movie, it's worth it.

Nevertheless, it's still possible to talk about the movie intelligently without revealing the crucial twists that make it so compelling for the viewer watching it. For a reasonably informed viewer the movie addresses the broadly-held sense that Israel's character has become compromised over time. In the same way that there's a contrast between the faces of the young trio and what they become later in life, in 1995, when they have acquired a bit of extra girth, slackening facial muscles, and the inscrutability that comes with age. In those 30 years so much has happened and many of the things that have taken place are not as pure as was the youthful mission of Rachel, Stephan and David.

As for Vogel, his only way to engage with his Mossad captors, trussed up as he is in a dingy East Berlin apartment, is to use his wits and his voice. These interactions are notable for the way they reveal things about each of the agents as they feed their captive. Who is Stephan and what does he stand for? And who is Rachel? Who is David? Each of the agents has his and her own character, and they show us who they are when they come face-to-face with a man who has committed horrendous crimes in the name of science. There is a sense of reckoning. In these scenes we, also, face something strange and alien, but also perhaps not so uncommon. So, as each generation grows up to enter the world, each generation should be confronted with the facts of Nazism so that its participants can ask themselves not just what happened, but why those things happened.

Yes, the movie wrestles with difficult themes about humanity, evil, truth, and the consequences of these things. But it deals with them in interesting cinematic ways. There's plenty of spy-craft in 1995, as well, when Rachel played by Mirren sets about trying to settle matters finally before the lies told 30 years before become public. Mirren expertly plays a middle-aged Ukranian woman as she breaks into a newspaper office looking for information about someone the world thought had been dealt with a generation before.

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