'The Debt' has no payoff

John Madden's remake of the forgettable Israeli film is an improvement but still leaves a lot to be desired.

The Debt 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Debt 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In 2007, most people were raving about a film that had its Israeli premiere at the Jerusalem Film Festival – The Band’s Visit. Not much attention was paid to another Israeli film at the festival that year, The Debt, which got a thumb’s down from me and most of the other local critics. It told the story of three young Mossad agents in the 1960s tasked with killing a Nazi in Europe, and how the fallout from that mission affected their lives three decades later. I described it as heavy handed, overly symbolic, clichéd and implausible, and promptly forgot about it. That is, I forgot about it until I got the surprising news that Hollywood had taken notice of it and was remaking it in English.
Apparently, in the never-ending search for real villains in the post- Cold War era, Nazi stories are increasingly attractive to American movie studios. Think about it: In recent years, Tom Cruise played a heroic Nazi in Valkyrie, Kate Winslet won an Oscar for her portrayal of an illiterate concentration camp guard in The Reader, and the the unknown Christoph Waltz won an Oscar for playing a Nazi in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Onscreen Nazis are back, with a vengeance.
The good news in the case of The Debt is that the new version is an improvement on the original. Directed by John Madden, the man who made Shakespeare in Love, it has better acting, smoother pacing and more suspense. The most compelling figure in each of the films is the female Mossad agent, and in the Israeli version the older woman was played by Gila Almagor. She is a fine actress for many roles but is not credible as an action-film heroine.
In the English version, the character of Rachel Singer is played by Helen Mirren, who is quite believable as a tough but elegant older woman you wouldn’t want to cross.
Two of Britain’s best character actors, Tom Wilkinson (who stole scenes from George Clooney in Michael Clayton) and Ciaran Hinds (who has been a glowering presence in dozens of films, including There Will Be Blood), play, respectively, Stephan Gold and David Peretz. The three aging warriors have made their reputations for their brave killing of the notorious Nazi Dieter Vogel (Jesper Cristensen ), once known as the Surgeon of Birkenau, whom they dispatched in Berlin in the 1960s.
As the film opens in the late 1990s, Rachel and Stephan, once a married couple, now estranged, have a grown daughter, Sarah (Romi Aboulafia), a journalist who has written a book about the mission, spotlighting her mother’s bravery in particular. And then they get some disquieting news, which can’t be revealed without spoiling the plot.
Lengthy flashbacks take the trio back to the 1960s, where they are played by Jessica Chastain, a lovely young actress who received rave reviews for her performance in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life; Marton Csokas (who appears in the upcoming Dream House with Daniel Craig); and Sam Worthington, who starred in Avatar.
The psychological conflicts, romantic rivalries and tensions among the three are front and center, and how much you like the film will depend on how compelling you find all of this. All three are mindful of the importance of killing this Nazi, but it is the youngest and most inexperienced of the three, Rachel, who has the key role in the mission. That’s because he now works as a gynecologist, and she gains access to him by posing as a patient. The lengthy scene of him giving her a pelvic examination before she drugs him with a syringe is extraordinarily unpleasant. Just the conjunction of the two words “Nazi” and “gynecologist” is nausea-inducing and the titillation in this scene, while the audience worries that the Nazi will mutilate her internally in some way if he, in fact, is on to her is utterly sick.
Fortunately for viewers, he turns out to be no creepier than the average male gynecologist. But in one of those odd movie conventions, the villain gets to be the philosopher and the gentleman in this story. Vogel is far more attractive and seductive a character than the rather grumpy, snarling Mossad agents.
The film does have some suspense and makes some interesting points about our need to make heroes out of flawed people; but in the end, even with this wonderful cast, it’s still a disappointment.
The Debt Directed by John Madden. Written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan.
Based on the Israeli film The Debt (Ha’hov) by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum.
118 minutes.
Hebrew title: Ha’hov. In English.