Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Every Secret Comes with a Price.
Director: John Madden
Written by: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan (based on the 2007 film 'Ha-Hov')
Starring: Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, Jesper Christensen, Romi Aboulafia.
Running time: 113 min.
Right, the time has come: you may as well call me a hipster. I saw the original movie of The Debt, a small Israeli film made in 2007, before I saw the remake. I know, I made a choice so obscure that I should probably be wearing my hipster flag out and proud - but for now, I'd like to call it a good choice on my part by delving into the shallow waters of the preview drawer. Usually, there is just a flood of needlessly violent and cheaply gruesome horrors, or action movies starring Z-list 'actors'. At first, The Debt looked a little like that. But going in 'blind' led to some good results.
These results, though, were some that - dare I say - could have been improved on. I don't want to put anything indelicately, but better production values and a little more money could have turned a solid movie into an extremely good one. With a who's who of British screen-writing team (Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan), Shakespeare in Love director John Madden at the helm and a cast headlined by the always wonderful Helen Mirren, this remake is not one that we can dismiss as a 'copy-cat crap'. Trust me, I know - I'm a 'hipster'.
The film begins in 1997, where Rachel Singer's (Mirren) daughter has just written a book about a mission her mother and two other Mossad agents completed back in 1965. Soon after, the retired Rachel and her ex-husband/colleague Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) receive troubling news about their former colleague David (Ciarán Hinds), and about the mission from all of those years ago. We are taken back to 1965, where young Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) group together to capture the 'Surgeon of Birkenau' (Jesper Christensen) for his contribution to the atrocities during the Holocaust. Through great risk and personal cost, their mission was deemed accomplished - but what exactly does this group have to hide 32 years later?
The Debt is a film that just keeps giving and giving, unfolding secrets slowly and pushing lies out into centre stage - often with devastating results. While the ending doesn't quite round off such a rich storyline in the 'bam!' way you would expect it to, there is plenty to leave you reeling. What I liked the most was that the film's heart lies with Rachel Singer, who is both nervous and brave woman who suffers the most out of the three because of their actions. Jessica Chastain brings real humanity to her role. Rachel knows how to beat up people, and possibly kill them, but she isn't the cookie-cutter girl assassin with a heart of stone. Through her, we see how people are pushed to the front of the line to deliver justice, how expectations always pose a bigger threat than reality, and how heroes become cowards. She also shows the fear building up inside of her - especially in her early scenes with the Surgeon/Dieter Vogel. If this were cookie-cutter Hollywood, she'd show absolutely no fear towards the big villain. Yet, in a unique set-up consisting of her pretending to be a young woman wanting to have children and have this man sum up her chances, she shows that she is only human. The fact that this man's hands - hands which have been responsible for so much pain and death - have come into contact with her is sickening. Chastain is a master of making these subtle and silent moments speak louder than a thousand words. And a great deal of the film's best moments are because of her.
The film is not your average 'catch the bad guy, get revenge' kind of deal. While the first act gives off that impression, it then gets into the three agents having to deal with Dieter living in their house. Dieter is a master at manipulating them, taunting them with his heartless recollections of what he had done. Jesper Christensen is quite frankly, terrifying in his part, especially in either of the scenes where he tells that Rachel that "you Jews don't know how to kill, you only know how to die" or where he explains to David why the Jews were such easy targets. Because of his taunts, the already fragile minds of Rachel and David are pushed to the very edge. To add to that, the relationship between the three agents is also set on edge as both David and Stephan form affections towards Rachel - yet Stephan is the stronger, more selfish one, so naturally, he wins. It is a complex world they form within a leaky apartment, playing on the fear, anxiety and claustrophobia of the setting. I would have been happy if we could stay just watching that. Alas, that was not to be.
The major problem with the film, which ultimately makes it all unravel, is the time-shifting narrative. There are a few things which are there to remind us why it is needed, especially with the heavy theme of secrets and lies always being there to haunt you. However, it could have been done better. The problem lies with the casting. Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren were perfectly picked to share the same role, as their acting styles compliment each other. Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington had the wrong cards dealt to them, though. Any person with working eyes could see that Csokas and Hinds look more alike, and Worthington could easily grow into Wilkinson. To add confusion, though, Wilkinson plays the older version of Csokas and Worthington grows into Hinds, which makes the connections between the two time periods lack coherence. It was done far better in the original, but it is covered up by the fact that the 1997 time period mainly focuses on Rachel, which Helen Mirren does a brilliant job of.
So as I sit here and bask in my 'hipsterness', I'll say this: The Debt is a fine remake. It doesn't push the ballot, nor will it be remembered in years to come, or will it be studied in schools. For now, it is definitely worth a watch. And hey, if you wanna join me in being a hipster, definitely check out the original. It'll be nice to see that a Hollywood remake didn't botch up some good source material.
What I got: