Tuesday, 1 November 2011

“Maybe it isn’t always a blessing to survive”

The Debt: directed by John Madden; written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan

(As always minor spoilers are addressed in the aim for thorough discussion, but the film’s significant plot-point is not revealed.)

Had I decided to read any reviews of John Madden’s thriller The Debt I’m sure that more than a few of them would make mentions of the seeming inconsistency in casting the three principal characters across the decade. It’s a problem faced by any film which attempts to travel across time using dual actors, and the film’s vaguely confusing opening doesn’t help the audience to settle initially perplexing when it comes to identifying who is who. And, of course, this is only a precipitant to larger issues the film faces. The crux of the story takes place in East Berlin where three Mossad agents Rachel, Stefan and David, are doing their best to capture Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel – “The Surgeon of Birkenau” – and bring him to trial in Israel. A series of unfortunate events muddles their purpose and from it grows a dreadful act of secrecy which burgeons to international proportions across the years.
I’m immediately nervous about films which attempt to execute a dual narrative. The filmmaker needs to establish a decisive reason as to why the story requires information from both timelines, and in doing so defend his decision to examine both timelines equally or to cast the brunt of the drama in one portion. The screenplay in The Debt assorts importance a bit lopsidedly wherein the ostensible situation seems to be one where both timelines are of equal importance. If the past portends the rise, then the present does the same for “the fall”. The thing is, under Madden’s direction there is enough emotional potency in the past that there is an immediate cumbersome nature to the attempts made at dovetailing the two timelines. For the first third we are presented with something akin to a concurrent development of plots as we delve slowly into the young agents’ plans as we watch the older incarnations of the trio still obviously scarred by what went down three decades ago.
The film achieves its first significant emotional success in the middle act of the film when specific attention is given to the details of the past. Madden’s direction is not an issue here, neither is it an issue in the other parts of the film really but it’s the actors who make this portion soar. Worthington eviscerates any doubts I had about him and rises to the potential of leading man I thought I’d espied even in turgid happenings like Clash of the Titans. Not that he does it alone. In my third meeting with Jessica Chastain, she is as winsome as she was in the first. She does seem the least comfortable with the structures of the accent, but her profound ability to show emotion she soars. However, I’m somewhat moved to call Marton Csokas’ performance my favourite of the trio – and probably the film. For all the textual richness the writers attempt to imbue the script with, it has a tendency to come off as curiously hollow. There’s an inherent simplicity to having the trio in a room with their prisoner, and it could lead to a multitude of issues and the slow burn does not work as well as you would hope. This segues to another concern I have with the film.
To add resonance to the moral and political implications of the film there is a tenuous love story triangle, which is unfortunately approached especially considering how game the actors are. For the purpose of what I presume to be an attempt at being low-key, but comes off as lazy, the romance facet is markedly unobtrusive and with the minimalist nature taken with character development Stefan’s character in particular. It’s impossible for the audience to get invested in any relationship with David and Rachel, and the narratives decision to begin in media res means that we spend time waiting to see how the triangle becomes a triangle, but there’s nothing to indicate that there are any significant ties on either sides which does a disservice to the actors, and to Madden’s fairly good attempts to imbue the film with a palpable tension. Especially when that facet is abandoned for a wholly moralistic one in the third act
Helen Mirren is a game actress, surely, but she’s not at her best here. She gets the job done, but there’s a continuous uncertainty in the performance and it shows especially nearing the film’s end when a one-two punch of revelations are revealed. Considering that the film seemed intent on being a better than usual espionage thriller makes the eventual didactic nature more than a little heavy-handed. Madden directs it in a way trying to keep the visceral nature even amidst all this hectoring from the script. The climax doesn’t deliver, though because the older cast don’t come off as adept. I’m not sure if it’s because Madden is more comfortable working from the past than the present, but there is a strident indication that had the film stayed in the past and allowed the film to be rooted in more moral ambiguity it might have been more successful. As it stands, the youthful trio turn in excellent work but ultimately it seems to be of little help. The film manages to deliver, ultimately, on something akin to the thrilling – but it’s not emotionally satisfying.


Dan O. said...

It was a good and tense ride for the first act but then it starts to get a little bit insane by the last 30 minutes. Nice review.

Runs Like A Gay said...

Spot on review, Andrew, I completely agree with your points about the past being more morally ambiguous and more sucessful.

I wonder if a film about three Mossad agents slowly losing their composure in a room with a Nazi criminal would have got the budget this film did.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Exactly. The present-day stuff was bizarrely edited, too, making what could have been one of the more effective scenes (Hinds & Mirren) part of...a driving montage? Such choices did not serve the narrative at all.

Loved the actors in the past, though. And Jesper Christensen is always welcome.


The casting is especially an issue in the final act. It's supposed to be a revelation to us when the "patient" looks nothing like Christensen...but my friend thought Martin Csokas was the younger Ciaran Hinds for most of the film.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

dan insane towards the end, indeed, which sort of renders the good work the young cast does unnecessary or at the very least under-appreciated.

ben that last line really makes me wonder now. it probably wouldn't have gotten a big budget, but it would have been so arresting, i think.

walter Oh my god YES! the casting for the men was so bizarre, it was at least half an hour before i was certain as to who was who. i didn't think about the editing, but you're right now that i think of it. it's not that the older actors are that BAD, but the scenes are handled weirdly. madden fares much better in the past. (and i still can't get over how good the young cast was.)