Performance of Exemplary Cast Collects on ‘The Debt’

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Average: 1 (2 votes) Oscarman rating: 4.0/5.0
Rating: 4.0/5.0

CHICAGO – Re-imagining, almost re-engaging the evil of the Holocaust has been thoroughly examined in film for years. “The Debt” looks at another angle, that of revenge and how much that revenge can wreak havoc on the truth.

With both Helen Mirren, who plays the character of Rachel in 1997, and Jessica Chastain, who mirrors her in the Rachel of 1965, there is a mood generated that has a haunting and melancholy personality. This is matched with a frantic and thrilling tale of espionage tinged with the karma of revenge. It is a morality play by way of tinker-tailor-soldier-spy.

Rachel (Helen Mirren) was a covert Israeli intelligence agent in the mid-1960s, and her daughter has just written a book about one of her exploits. Her mission then was to find the so-called ‘Butcher of Birkenau,’ a Nazi doctor (Jesper Christensen) who experimented on female Jewish inmates during the Holocaust in World War II. In a flashback to the past events, set in Communist East Berlin, the young Rachel (Jessica Chastain) goes through the process of the assignment, with agent partners Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington).

Clarán Hinds as Contemporary David and Helen Mirren as Rachel in ‘The Debt’
Clarán Hinds as Contemporary David and Helen Mirren as Rachel in ‘The Debt’
Photo credit: Laurie Sparham for Focus Features

Back in 1997, it is revealed that Rachel and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) were married, the parents of the author daughter. While on the book promotion, Rachel is visited by the contemporary David (Clarán Hinds), who expends his guilt regarding elements of what the official report had to say about their former mission. The secrets potentially revealed could be devastating, both to the now older agents and the country that welcomed them back as heroes.

The balance in this film is beautifully articulated by director John Madden (”Shakespeare in Love”). The secrets are the MacGuffin (Hitchcock film term meaning what seems important really isn’t), because the relationships in the film are the most intriguing. There is as much implied by a simple wave between mother and daughter at the beach as there is in all the gunfire associated with being a covert agent. The action parts are choreographed with precision and an eye for excitement. For once, there is something important at stake.

How the older and younger Rachel play off of each other is truly sublime. Each of the performances by Mirren and Chastain strengthen the other. Chastain is a wounded soul warrior, personally motivated to bring the Nazi doctor to justice, but she also can’t help connecting to his humanity. In contrast to the cold Stephan, who is by the book and little mad, David and Rachel are vulnerable at the core of their moral code, and the younger actors doing the versions of the older selves translate all those difficult emotions impressively.

Structure and storytelling are important in a film with two time settings, and again Madden nails it. There is enough fleeting terror in 1960s East Berlin to fill an ocean, but it is the modern setting that throws off its own uncomfortable vibe, and that is an amazing use and result of the filmmaker’s storytelling tools. Our modern times still fight with the ghosts of the Holocaust, the ghosts of secret police forces and the ghosts of all the politics and emotions associated with them. It all swirls about in The Debt, adding an appropriate atmosphere of dread.

Jessica Chastain as Young Rachel and Sam Worthington as David in ‘The Debt’
Jessica Chastain as Young Rachel and Sam Worthington as David in ‘The Debt’
Photo credit: Laurie Sparham for Focus Features

One important complaint – the Nazi doctor is overplayed in his captivity scene. And while the story might argue that his psychological meanderings are part of the means to his anticipated escape, I couldn’t help but think of the old World War II propaganda films, where the Nazis were played by sweaty Teutonic actors, spewing ‘Sieg Heil!’ propaganda like Hitler’s speech writers. The truth is more subtle, the motivations could even be more evil. Why spoil it with platitudes?

Given that Oscar season for films officially starts in the Fall, Helen Mirren (and for that matter, Jessica Chastain) are out of the starting gate very strong. Mirren captures it all in her world weary face, and Chastain sets the table by expressing what was necessary for the the essence of Rachel to achieve her character. Nominations for all.

”The Debt” opens everywhere August 31st. Featuring Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Clarán Hinds, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington and Jesper Christensen. Adapted by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, directed by John Madden. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2011 Patrick McDonald,

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