By Gary Murray
Starring Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Jesper Christensen, Marton Cwokas, Carian Hinds and Tom Wilkinson
Written by Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan
Directed by John Madden
Running time 113 min
MPAA Rating R
Selig Film Rating Matinee
Helen Mirren is a powerhouse performer, a grand dame of the stage and screen. Handling both comedy and drama with equal aplomb, she can capture attentions with a single glance. Her latest is the John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) suspense thriller The Debt.
The story jumps around with different people playing the same parts. It opens in the 1960’s with a trio of fighters coming back from a mission. The woman Rachel (Jessica Chastain) has a bandage on the side of her face. We fast forward thirty years and a very senior Rachel (Helen Mirren) is being lauded in a new book about an Eastern Berlin covert operation and the killing of the Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen).
Still carrying the scar from her mission, Rachel has told the story of her ordeal with everyone who would listen, with the exception of her daughter. There is a secret that Rachel and her ex-husband (Tom Wilkinson) share, a secret that has been buried deep in a sea of lies.
Then we go back to that fateful few days in the 1960’s behind the Iron Curtain. Rachel along with two men (Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington) are tasked to track down the Surgeon of Brikenau, a man responsible for the deaths of many Jews in the concentrations camps. At the three plot and plan the capture of this criminal, Rachel becomes attached to her fellow fighters, having both romantic feelings and romantic complications.
As the plans go on and change, Rachel must reconcile her hate and her love while trying to keep a focus on the mission. The Debt is not only about the mission but about how an adult Rachel Singer must face up to the truths about those fateful days so many years ago.
The film was honored in 2011 with a Special Police (Jury) Prize from the Beaune International Thriller Film Festival and it is easy to see why. As a straight thrill ride, The Debt delivers not only in terms of casting but in degree of suspense. Director John Madden keeps the physical and psychological thrills never telegraphing his twists and turns. This is a master filmmaker doing what he does best.
Helen Mirren is billed as the star of the film and she does a star-like performance but the true star of the piece is Jessica Chastain. 2011 has been her year. She has given a winning performance in The Help and was the only positive thing in The Tree of Life. Not only does she play a perfect young Helen Mirren, she makes the role her own. She is our conflicted soul, wanting to forgive the unforgivable. She knows that the man they have captured is a monster who would kill her without a second thought but still believes she must give him some compassion.
Her two young co-conspirators are both sides of the coin. Where the character Marton Csokas plays is of one mindset, Sam Worthington’s wants the opposite–blood justice. She is the Ego between the Id and Super Ego of her male cohorts. The three individual are the ones who make up the complexities of revenge and vengeance in the driving force of the piece.
Almost a lock for a Supporting Actor nod in the Oscar race has to be Jesper Christensen as Dieter Vogel the Surgeon of Birkenau. He is evil, wrapped in the guise of a saintly doctor. He plays at Rachel’s sensibilities while still hating this ‘dirty Jewess’ while playing off her humanitarian sympathies. It is a brilliant performance that pulls the film to something more than the sum of its parts.
The film is not perfect. There are some lapses in logic where characters do things that are just a bit out of character arc and reason. The more one begins to thing about the loose ends of the film, the more it tries to unravel. It holds up more as a thrill a minute ride than a thrilling motion picture. One never really finds a reason to care about any person on the screen and the bad guy is the most interesting character.
With the dearth of mindless muck that has been on the silver screen for the past three months, The Debt is a welcome breath of fall fresh air. While not a perfect film, it is a film that should bring an adult audience to the theaters.