John Madden's ambitious thriller 'The Debt' spans two time periods 30 years apart using six actors to tell the story through the eyes of it's three main characters.
Did you get all that? It may seem like a lot of numbers but for the most part, 'The Debt' is perfectly engaging. It suffers from a contrived, stick-on ending and some dubious pacing but the acting is strong and the action is plentiful.
It's 1965 and David, Stefan and Rachel are three Israeli Mossad agents given the unenviable task of capturing Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel, the so-called Surgeon of Birkenau, and bringing him to justice. Vogel has earned his nickname with the mutilation and murder of thousands of people at wartime prison camps but we first encounter him as Dr Bernhardt, trying to go it straight as the gynaecologist helping Rachel overcome her apparent fertility issues. As you might expect it is not long before the not so good Doc has Rachel's legs wrapped tightly around his neck as she delivers the near lethal shot of whatever is required to facilitate his capture.
But before all that we find ourselves in 1997, with Rachel (Helen Mirren) busy taking the plaudits from what everyone believes to have been a roaringly successful mission. Their version of events has even been turned into a book by Rachel's daughter, but what really happened in the days after Vogel's capture? Whatever it was is enough for David (Ciaran Hinds) to step in front of a bus rather than face up to it, while Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) seems equally keen to hide the truth.
And so the film sets about telling the tale. It is during the kidnap of Vogel that the three young actors show us their best. Fans of Avatar and Clash Of The Titans (if there are any of you out there) will have enjoyed the work of Sam Worthington before but Jessica Chastain and Marton Csokas will be less familiar. Worthington plays the young David who it seems has the greatest chemistry with the young Rachel (Chastain), but it is somehow Stefan (Csokas)who gets to the goods first. I hate to nit-pick but I must take issue with this. Moments earlier David had pulled away when he and Rachel were about to kiss, but if she has to jump on the next available bus after every knock-back then she has serious problems. For now it is David and Stefan who have problems, but this being the movie business they were always going to while there was a girl in the room.
Far more interesting are Vogel's attempts to pschologically destroy his captors. His gag is only removed at meal times but that seems to be all he needs to drive a further wedge between the two men and to get under the skin of an increasingly nervous Rachel. Though they may have benefitted from a little more editing, these scenes are the film's strongest. Jesper Christensen is highly convincing as Vogel and the young actors seem to bounce off him during these tense, dramatic moments. But then we find out what really happened to Vogel and things start to head downhill from there for 'The Debt'. Driven so well by it's plot and it's ability to throw up some interesting moral questions, the film's strength gets perilously close to becoming it's weakness as things get decidely implausible and the whole things starts to feel like it has been on for far too long,
If only Madden had known when to stop.