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Film review: The Debt

Updated on September 24, 2011

Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn appear to be developing a strong working relationship together. Not only is this the third project they've written together (Stardust and Kickass being the previous two), but they seem able to work well with whatever genre is thrown at them. The Debt sees the pair take on their most serious and sombre story yet.

It's 1987 and Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) learn some tragic news about their friend and ex colleague David (Ciarán Hinds). This serves as a reminder to them both, of the dark history they shared together.

Back in 1966 Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) were politically savvy and were all fresh-faced secret agents for Mossad, the Israeli national intelligence agency.

They found themselves assigned to the same mission, of tracking down one Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), wanted for Nazi war crimes. They discover him in East Berlin, posing as a gynaecologist, under the name of Dr Bernhardt.

The success of the mission is paramount, which is why they have to spend as much as time possible getting to grips with their new aliases. They also have to iron out their plan. All of this takes time, and the trio become close, living together as they do, amidst all this preparation.

But as much as they prepare, no plan is guaranteed to go off without a hitch. And none of them are prepared for the repercussions of their actions, thirty years later.

British director John Madden hasn't managed the same kind of impact with his body of work post working on 1998's Oscar-fest Shakespeare in Love. Although his previous titles may have fallen short of the mark (financially at least), with the likes of Mirren and Wilkinson on board with this one, it has a better chance to shine.

Where it might stall is in being squarely aimed at an intelligent adult audience, which sadly is becoming all too much of an oxymoron these days in cinemas.

Madden is keen to play with the timeline throughout, flashing back and forth as he does,  which although takes a bit of getting used to at the start – even for the smartest of audiences – the deeper into the film and the story the audience delves, the easier it all becomes.

The story itself becomes both gripping and absorbing; it's difficult to tell how much of this is down to Vaughn and Goldman, and Peter Straughan, who, to be fair, also gets a writing credit (making the trio sound like a highly credible firm of lawyers), as the film is a remake of Assaf Bernstein's 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov. In any case, the story and the interaction of its characters, both young and old, makes for intense viewing.

It may well be Dame Helen's mature features plastered over the posters, but it's really the young cast of the sixties timeline that do all the hard work. Worthington proves that he can take his acting a little deeper than just the bare-chest hero part, and Chastain delivers the kind of performance that can kick-start a remarkable career.

If there is anyone still on the lookout for smart, taught thrillers, The Debt pays in full.

4 booms


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    • Boomuk profile image

      Boom 6 years ago from London, UK

      Rob if you've seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy you should enjoy this. It many ways it's a better film.

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Thanks for the review. I've been curious about this film. I'm still debting whether or not to see it.