The Debt: Movie Review

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The trailer for The Debt, the new film by the Shakespeare in Love director John Madden starring Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Avatar‘s Sam Worthington has just hit the web. The film is a remake of a 2007 Israeli film by the same name. It’s then only appropriate to revisit the original version.

The Debt tells the story of Rachel, an ex-Mossad agent who has a chance to redeem herself from a dark secret in her past: while serving as a young agent in the sixties, she and two fellow agents were assigned to capture a Nazi war criminal who conducted horrible experiments on Jews during WWII. The mission goes horribly wrong when the Nazi escapes and the three agents decide to cover their failure by telling the world he was killed during the mission. As as per custom with dark secrets in cinema, a few decades later it comes back to haunt them, and Rachel sets out to finish the job.

The film was directed by first timer Assaf Bernstein with a cast of great Israeli actors such as Gila Almagor (Eric Bana‘s mother in Munich) as Rachel and Itai Tiran (Beaufort), Oded Teomi and Yehezkel Lazarov. The best casting choices, though, were Edgar Selge as the chilling Nazi monster and Neta Garty (Love Life) as young Rachel. Both gave great performances.

The film looks excellent – shot by Lebanon‘s D.P. Giora Bejach in Israel and Ukraine – and in its first 30 minutes it reminds me a bit of the Oscar winner The Secret in their Eyes (dark past, historical background, romance and suspense); yet it suffers from emphatic lack of focus. The script is crying out for a few more rewrites to get over some very unconvincing plot twists (Spoiler alert!!) especially in the last act. 60 year old Rachel is fatally wounded in a fight, yet manages to run a few miles through Ukrainian forest and stand bleeding in a train, unnoticed. And don’t get me started on the Nazi’s successful escape which, though is visually impressive, is one of the most ridiculous escape scenes I’ve seen. No one would buy it. Ever.

As a thriller, director Bernstein didn’t press hard enough the buttons that would take the film to a suspenseful place, and it remains rather sterile. It shows most crucially in the lifeless background (the streets, the nursing home, the train station) and in the film’s need for some amount of action – a chase or a fight or anything of the kind. It is probably due to budget constrains, but at the end of the day it feels like a floor-plan for some bigger, faster film.

That is why – in contrast to other American remakes of foreign films – The Debt can really use a second round. The new trailer seems to give just that: more action and more suspense, plus Helen Mirren in a wonderful choice for the lead. The general plot is very good, so I believe that the adapters (including Layer Cake‘s director Matthew Vaughn) in a way have their job laid out for them. All The Debt needs is a more daring director who can give the film that essential breath of life which the original lacked.

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