While all this is going on there are scenes from 1997, in which the older versions of the three agents (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciaran Hinds) are in Tel Aviv. Mirren’s daughter has written a book about their mission, and Hinds is not exactly happy about it.
This is good stuff, but it’s like someone telling a long story where you’re wondering what the point is. Then, about halfway through, boom! A major plot twist that smarter viewers than me may have seen coming. From then on, The Debt is one of the better films of the year.
I’m not going to discuss the plot any more than that, lest I spoil it, as to hint at it would ruin it. Suffice it to say that the main issue of the film is the ethical and moral conundrum of telling a lie or revealing the truth, and what it means to each character.
Beyond that, the film, directed by John Madden, is a tense thriller. There are some fine set pieces, such as one in a Berlin train station and another in a Ukrainian hospital. Madden has done well with action films before–his unfairly dumped Killshot was a first-rate crime film. The younger actors dominated the first half, and Chastain, who has had a watershed summer (The Tree of Life, The Help, and now The Debt, when I had never heard of her before) is terrific as a young agent. Sam Worthington is the young Hinds (it’s always a struggle in films like this where one actor looks nothing like the actor who plays him older) and Martin Csokas is the young Tom Wilkinson. There’s also a terrifically sinister turn as the Nazi by Jesper Chriastensen.
The second half of the film is dominated by Mirren, brilliant as ever, who lives with a secret and is forced back into the secret agent business thirty years after she gave it up. I’m extremely heartened by The Debt, a movie for adults that brain-dead teenagers wouldn’t know what to make of (it’s told nonlinearly), managed to finish second in this week’s box office race, opening at multiplexes (I could have seen it at any of five different theaters in my neighborhood). I’m also glad to see that Mirren, by virtue of her dominance on the poster, was the main draw of the marketing. Imagine, a sexagenarian actress as a draw! Unthinkable!
The Debt is a remake of an Israeli film that was unreleased in the U.S., so I don’t know if this one is better. It doesn’t really matter, as this version is a superior spy movie.
My grade for The Debt: B+.