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Film Review: The Debt

There is something awesome about a good spy movie. For people who have ordinary jobs, seeing spies in action provides a thrilling escape from one’s predictable daily routine.

But in The Debt, we are caught in two different time periods. One is in 1965, the other in 1997. The lives of three Mossad agents in an operation within Germany to capture Dieter Vogel- the Surgeon of Birkenau-is cross cuts with each character over thirty years later.

Tasked with going into East Germany to capture Vogel, Rachel Singer, David Paretz and Stefan Gold improvise a plan to kidnap Vogel so he may be brought to trial for his crimes. Rachel is sent to see the doctor; on her third visit she injects him with a sedative and the plan to escape begins. However when Singer’s safety is jeopardised at the train station the plan turns awry and the team is forced to take Vogel back to their hideout.

Jasper Christensen is rather frightening as Vogel. With a pair of cold, steely blue eyes and a rather bashed face, he looks every part the war criminal. At every opportunity Vogel attempts to psychologically humiliate each agent with taunts about how meek and selfish Jewish people are. The entire holocaust was in fact a favour to everyone else. When the opportunity arises, Dieter makes a run for it, outsmarting all three agents to escape into the night.

Enter present day, where Rachel’s younger daughter has written a book chronicling the sting operation to bring Vogel down. It is met with warm applause. Rachel and Stefan have a conflict of interest in what was written. You can watch for yourself and see why that is.

In a large regard, staying within the past would probably have made the film more enchanting and thrilling. Searching through modern day events, nothing seems as enjoyable. Within the past you had an exciting tense setting, within a communist state, agents behind enemy lines. Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Martin Csokas very much fit all aspects of secret agent life. Helen Mirren seems like a cheerleader drawcard. Unlike her powerful performances as Elizabeth II in The Queen or Morgana in Excalibur, there’s a tired, wasted feeling to her inner self. Even if everything was functioning well it doesn’t seem like it would be enough. Tom Wilkinson, so resolute/stubborn later on hardly adds anything other than an unhappy face to the story.

Director John Madden carried a reasonable depth of filmmaking experience and it shows up when required. There are high stakes, high tension situations which are pieced together tremendously with fast cut camera shots and an eerie music score. Although some moments seem dull and staged, plenty of good content is available. Credit must be given to the Ben Davis, the cinematographer whose visual sensuality contributes tremendously to a emotionally challenging passage of events.

Much of the storyline is borrowed from Ha-Hov (Hebrew for The Debt) a film which is largely similar to Hollywood’s take on it with some discrepancies. Apart from name changes, perhaps the most influencing driver is that in the 2007 film, Rachel writes the book instead of her daughter. Why is that significant? Again I shall let you find out.

The Debt definitely is worth watching but be sure to look out for the original as well.

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