Film Review – The Debt

The Debt (M)

Directed by: John Madden

Starring: Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington

Four stars

Review by: Julian Wright


Director John Madden is not the first (and certainly will not be the last) film maker to bask in oscar glory only to have their career come to a screeching halt with one headache inducing production. After steering Shakespeare in Love to seven academy award wins (his Mrs Brown scored two nominations the year before) he received a lukewarm reception to his following films Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Proof.

But it was the troubled Killshot – a dull action/drama based on a novel by esteemed writer Elmore Leonard with an impressive cast that went through re-shoots, was delayed and then eventually dumped in a handful of cinemas in 2008 – that killed his streak. It would appear he has found his footing again with this sure-fire thriller that explores the bond between people put into an extreme situation and how telling a lie can haunt you – and come back to bite you.

In 1997, as retired decorated Mossad secret agents Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) are drawn into the celebrations surrounding the release of their daughter’s book about a famous and successful mission of theirs in 1965, they hear news that a fellow agent, David (Ciaran Hinds) has killed himself. The film rewinds back to that mission, in which the three agents (now played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington) manage to find Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) who is working in East Berlin as doctor.

The kidnapping runs fairly smoothly until the part where they need to put him on a train at a heavily guarded station goes awry. They miss the train and are forced to keep him prisoner in their dingy apartment while they come up with an alternate plan. The tension becomes increasingly thick with Rachel developing feelings for David but sleeping with Stephan and Dieter misbehaving and exploiting his kidnappers’ weaknesses.

But one decision the three make (for Rachel, the decision is made reluctantly) sees them labelled Israeli national heroes throughout the following years. Now with one of them dead and the book about their mission just released, past demons are resurrected and Rachel must finally put them to bed. To reveal more would ruin the fun.

There are so many films that play on the idea of a secret that has been dead and buried coming back to haunt the people who share it, and yet so infrequently do the stakes seem high enough for us to care. This is one rare occasion in which the truth emerging could have such a profound effect, not just on family but on a nation. In fact, it would mean a version of history being re-written to finally resemble fact- a fact that not many people would want to know.

These impossibly high stakes, coupled with some fine tuned direction that keeps the tension unflinchingly high for the entire running time, ensures one nail bitingly dramatic experience. Madden constantly reminds us of the pending danger and in doing so keeps us firmly on the edge of our seats.

The cast is impeccable, with Worthington being the one exception and one of the film’s very few weakest links with his shoddy accent breaking up some powerful moments. While The Debt stumbles slightly in the second half with some clumsy editing – it goes back and forth in time a little too often – it will not be easily erased from your memory. After seeing this thriller, you might want to think twice before telling a little white lie.


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