|Dame Mirren about to give Nazi criminal a piece of her mind in The Debt|
Everything old is new again
John Madden's The Debt, a remake of Assaf Bernstein's 2007 thriller Ha Hov, has a cute premise: three Mossad agents infiltrate Cold War Berlin and spirit away Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a Nazi war criminal nicknamed the Surgeon of Birkenau; the operation involves one of the agents, Rachel (Jessica Chastain) posing as a patient (he's a gynecologist) and submitting to a vaginal examination (talk about heroic sacrifice). Things go wrong when Vogel is kidnapped; the three end up taking refuge with their prisoner in an apartment, waiting for further instructions.
The apartment becomes a pressure cooker of repressed frustrations, power struggles, desire. The men are a study in contrasts--David (Sam Worthington) is moody and idealistic and not a little touchy; Stephan (Marton Csokas) is ambitious and charismatic, not above bending the rules a little. Rachel only exacerbates the tension between the males (it's clear she's attracted to both men); one can't help but ask the question (one among admittedly many, but still the first to pop into one's mind)--does she sleep with David or Stephan?
Vogel isn't interested in making matters any easier; he acts up, struggles with his bindings, spits in the men's faces when he can. With Rachel, however, he's different; you can actually feel the discomfort radiating from Rachel as she spoons food into Vogel's mouth, just inches below his closely watching eyes--he's obviously every bit as attracted as either David or Stephan, but (and Rachel can't help being aware of this) he's also achieved a level of physical intimacy with her that the younger men have not.
Of the young cast, Chastain stands out--her role's the most interesting anyway and she runs with it, her gestures and expressions captured with almost microscopic detail by Madden's camera. Christensen by far has the most fun with his character, as the uncooperative Nazi captive--he gets to try a number of bondage poses, and spurt unappetizing-looking mush in people's faces; when ungagged, he taunts his captors with anti-Semitic rants (David is a particularly favorite target). And he gets to play the unashamed creep: you can feel his eyes roving all over Rachel's slim body as she crouches to feed him.
Released from the confines of the pressure cooker the movie actually loses a little air--you realize just how much nervous energy Madden has managed to create in that tight space--but the thematic concerns broaden (the storyline actually jumps back and forth, from 1997 to 1965 and back). Thirty years later the agents (David played by Ciaran Hinds, Stephan by Tom Wilkinson), are now heroes for having shot the Surgeon of Birkenau; Rachel's daughter has written a book in tribute to the heroes. But--as with the original kidnapping--something starts to unravel, and it's up to Rachel (now played by Helen Mirren) to go to Ukraine and find out what she can, hopefully repair matters.
The actors have far more evocative faces here; you can believe they have pasts, complicated, unhappy ones, though it would be easier to link the faces to their equivalents thirty years ago and create the kind of “this was then and this is now” effect Madden must have wanted if you could actually find some resemblance between the actors and their younger counterparts. The tension is gone, of course; the story needn't keep itself confined to that location, but with the thematic, physical and temporal expansion one really needed a compensatory upgrade in dramatic stakes, and we don't really get that--the movie sort of slows to a crawl as the actors contemplate their suddenly uncertain fates. The tension only ratchets up again when Rachel finally arrives at the Ukrianian old folks' home where Vogel is presumably kept.
Madden isn't exactly an incompetent filmmaker--Mrs. Brown was an understated miniaturist portrait of an odd episode in a queen's history; Shakespeare in Love was a far more commercial yet oddly winning rom-com featuring the Bard himself (or his handsomer Hollywood equivalent) and an unknown paramour. Both movies showed a deft and modest hand at lighthearted storytelling, but the impression they give of the director himself--no, he's not exactly the first choice to pop into mind when looking for someone to direct a picture about international espionage.
That understated hand, though, does feel refreshing in this summer of big robot movies and fantasy franchises (in 3D at that); one is reminded of Ronald Neame's efficient The Odessa File (1974), Franklin Schaffner's exuberantly loony The Boys from Brazil (1978) and--best of the lot--Martin Ritt's bleakly spare The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965) arguably the finest adaptation of a John le Carre novel ever. Spy in particular preferred to employ grim atmosphere, psychological insight and moral ambiguity to fashion its thrills, as opposed to relying on handycam action cut chop-suey style--you can see the influence on Madden's film, which emulates but doesn't necessarily exceed its role model. Both pictures' virtues are so old-fashioned (especially today) they seem positively radical, startling in their relative use of stillness and quiet. Not too shabby; not too shabby at all.
(First published in Businessworld, 9.22.11)