The Debt is a remake of a 2007 Israeli film of the same name, which has left me pondering for the last two weeks, “How exactly did Hollywood bollocks up this one?” Upon reflection it’s entirely possible the original Israeli version might have had similar flaws. Unfortunately the original film Ha-Hov is not easily viewable in the US – so my (admittedly lazy) quest to compare the works side by side remains unfulfilled. I’m pretty sure the Hebrew language version wouldn’t have me so frequently thinking, “Wow, it’s odd to hear Helen Mirren speak in Hebrew accented English.”
The film opens with a team of three Mossad agents returning home after a mission in East Berlin. The small but powerful tone of their welcome back makes it clear they’ve done something important for their country. Though from the effort the young agents are making to plaster on a smile, not to mention the wound on agent Rachel Singer’s (Jessica Chastain) face there are strong signals that everything didn’t go according to plan. From this point on The Debt alternates between these three on their mission behind enemy lines and their present day personas. If you think you’re plagued with Jewish guilt, just wait until you get a sense of what’s behind those forced smiles of the disembarking snatch and grab team.
The first half of the film is quite strong, nailing the look of 1966 Berlin and delivering an appropriate level of tension. By the end I felt things had derailed. Mainly it’s the modern day storyline that completely lost me from around the 2/3 mark as I was pulled along to a rather unsatisfying ending. The mission in flashback had me remarkably engaged. There’s true tension its planning and execution. East Berlin was not a simple operational environment due to the ever present specter of communist control. Their target was living under an assumed name and practicing obstetrics. Singer is sent in undercover as a woman fighting infertility, which leads to likely one of the most uncomfortable on screen discussions from a character in stirrups in the history of cinema.
By the time the film’s plot twists surface they’re pretty underwhelming. The really limited growth of the young characters in the 30 years that followed left me befuddled – and the ending seemed tacked on. It’s as though someone thought the film really needed an extra 20 minutes of Helen Mirren sneaking around, avoiding some people have sex on a desk Splinter Cell style and a conclusion involving some big moral decision, the nature of the which has me most perplexed. As the credits rolled I was left scratching my head as to the point.
The Debt is a technically well made film, overstuffed with strong actors. The first half is interesting enough not to strongly warn you off. I just wish it could have more fully lived up the potential of the many strong folks involved.
The Debt opens today. For more information, check out the film’s official site.