By Marc Glassman
August 26, 2011
John Madden, director
Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman & Peter Straughan, script
Based on the film Ha-Hov by Assaf Bernstein
Starring: Helen Singer (Rachel Singer), Jessica Chastain (young Rachel), Ciaran Hinds (David), Sam Worthington (young David), Tom Wilkinson (Stefan), Marton Csokas (young Stefan), Jesper Christensen (Dieter Vogel)
The Debt is an intriguing Holocaust thriller with a powerful contemporary twist–but it’s more than that. The film offers a cautionary tale for the tastemakers and enthusiasts that attend the Toronto International Film Festival every year. Some will remember that the film was a Gala presentation last year and that Helen Mirren led a star-studded cast on the red carpet during the evening of its premiere. Few would have predicted the commercial fate for the film that night.
Reviews are always embargoed at TIFF for the bigger films that will receive major release campaigns so there are no major complimentary critiques on The Debt from that time, but the round of interviews at the festival was respectful. And why not? Here’s an intelligent suspenseful drama with a cast that includes Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds and Mirren as modern-day Israeli heroic spies accompanied by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas as their younger versions—Mossad agents in ’60s East Germany. Bond villain Jesper Christensen even gets to chew up scenery as a Nazi scientist based on Josef Mengele.
Even the choice of director John Madden suggests that the producers at Miramax were expecting an Oscar buzz for the film. Madden is known as an “actor’s director,” and his credits include Shakespeare In Love, Proof and Mrs. Brown, all of which garnered Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and wins. And, indeed, a campaign for Oscars was about to be mounted last fall when Miramax was sold to Ron Tutor and Tom Barrack of Colony Capital–who decided to hold back the film’s release until now.
Why did the new masters at Miramax make that decision? Who can say? But it’s certainly true that a later summer release is unlikely to work in the film’s favour. Hate to say it but the phrase, “they dumped it,” comes to mind.
If so, that’s a pity. Because there are some wonderful performances here. Jessica Chastain, who enriched the summer with her warm heartfelt interpretation as the mother in Terence Malick’s Tree of Life and was a scene stealing hard drinking “white trash” Southern beauty in The Help offers a nuanced and highly effective effort as a Mossad spy in love with the wrong man in The Debt. The always- underestimated Marton Csokas is, by turns, funny, animated and ruthless as the young Stefan, the leader of an ill-matched trio of Israeli agents who are assigned to kidnap a Nazi dentist in East Germany during the height of the Cold War.
The film transitions effectively between a contemporary Israel bathed in sunshine where the secret that the trio kept for 30 years is slowly revealed and the nourish, terrifying place that was ’60s East Germany. The Debt is based on an Israeli film Ha-Hov and it’s tempting to wonder whether the original had as ambiguous an attitude towards Israel as does the English-language remake. One thing is for sure: the great Israeli actress Gila Almagor is a fine match for Mirren.
Though The Debt isn’t a great film, it would be wonderful if it proved to be a late summer hit–if only to defy the producers’ expectations. For TIFF watchers, why not check out a Gala you probably missed last year? To be clear: this is no masterpiece but The Debt does offer some great performances and a twisty thriller plot. Not bad for late August.