The Debt is a political thriller about secrets and lies and about the awful aftermath when plans go terribly wrong. In many ways it reminds you of Cold War thrillers like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and even Marathon Man. And while it’s made with skill and explores an important part of our history and psyche, it falls short by being too solemn and restrained, especially among the younger cast members. I’m not suggesting jokes should have been added to the script, only a broader palette of emotions.
The main reason to see The Debt is the casting. Helen Mirren, Ciarán Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson bring teeming, contradictory, believable life to their portrayals of the aging Mossad agents. One look at Mirren’s face at the beginning, and you know her character’s hiding something. And the under-utilized Ciarán Hinds is very good at conveying the shock that never went away. Wilkinson plays his character from a wheelchair but still commands every room he enters and holds sway over his old compatriots in a doomed scheme. And Jesper Christensen plays the Nazi war criminal at the heart of the story. As charming as he seems to be at first, there’s something in his eyes that conveys the history of his crimes and what he thinks of the world. Christensen is especially good in an extended debate, a kind of reverse-interrogation, in the middle of movie. As John Milton, William Shakespeare, and any other writer who has created villains has proven over and over again, the devil gets all the good lines.
Jessica Chastain does the most creditable job among the younger actors, torn between her duty and the horror of what happens (and torn, too, between two men in a fairly obligatory subplot). Despite her character’s restraint, her face subtly registers the changing fate and feelings she goes through. To give her her due, you never once think of Celia Foote, the character she played so recently in The Help. Marton Csokas, too, is good as the younger version of Tom Wilkinson, though his is a fairly one-note character—brash. Sam Worthington is the soft spot in casting. He plays a character whose personal demons drive him to keep his feelings pent up. To be fair, it’s hard to play a character who hides his feelings, but because his face registers so little emotion, we never quite believe in those passions, either political or personal.
The depiction of 1960’s Berlin is compellingly portrayed in tones of blue and sepia. And the action scenes are well-rendered, though there aren’t enough of them. John Madden directs with efficiency. The writing is spare. The older actors are especially good, conveying so much with a glance, an idea dawning on a face. And the plot has more than its share of twists and turns. If I haven’t given you enough of a sense of that plot, it’s because it’s hard to talk about without giving too much away. I’ll say this much. The story moves from capture to captivity to bloody aftermath. It’s a political thriller that knows all politics is local—and even closer to home than that.
And yet somehow, despite its many virtues, the movie doesn’t fully engage. I’ll say this much for it: with an almost constant diet of pure and infallible movie heroes (most of them wearing Lycra and/or body armor), it’s refreshing to be reminded that real life is a good deal messier, more ambiguous, and therefore flat-out more interesting than fantasy.
P.S. The Sleeper didn’t doze, though she closed her eyes at some of the violence. Before the movie ended, though, she had stacked her jacket and purse on her lap like a college freshman eager to be anywhere but in class.