It seems us cinephiles are doomed to live in a world of remakes. Why, over the last two years alone we’ve had to contend with Hollywood “re-imagings” of both foreign films and past American movies reaching into the double digits. Most of them are just pointless and bad (I’m looking at you, Arthur) but occasionally, one comes along that does great justice to the source material.
The Debt is a remake of the celebrated Israeli film Ha-Hov that was released in 2007. While the original is definitely worth seeing for comparison sake, this version directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and written by Matthew Vaughan and Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class) as well as Peter Straughan (Men Who Stare At Goats) is a gripping, if slightly heavy-handed old-fashioned spy yarn that puts a polished spin on the material.
The film tells the story of three Mossad agents who we first meet in 1997 when David (Ciarán Hinds) commits suicide for mysterious reasons that may only be decipherable by fellow agents Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stephen (Tom Wilkinson). The remaining two are chilly but cordial ex-spouses celebrating the launch of their daughter’s book, which tells the story of their 1960s capture of an infamous former Josef Mengele-type Nazi named Dieter Vogel, a.k.a. “the surgeon of Birkenau,” who was hiding out in Berlin.
The story then jumps back to 1966. The three young agents (played by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) are ordered to carry out a plan that involves smuggling their Nazi captive out of Berlin. They do this by using a West Berlin train travelling through East German territory as cover to get him over the wall and back to Israel where he would face the death penalty for his sadistic experiments during the Holocaust.
Their plan to capture him involves sending newly-minted agent Rachel into his medical practice (he’s rebranded himself as Doktor Bernhardt, an East German OB/GYN) posing as a married woman with fertility issues. She’s forced to grin-and-bear-it through pelvic exams and intimate gynecological discussion in order to confirm the doctor’s identity before pouncing on him - which she eventually does in a way that will make any woman who’s ever hated going to the doctor stand up and cheer.
When their abduction doesn’t go quite as planned and their Israeli contacts run for the hills, the three decide to keep Vogel in their leaky Berlin flat until they can appeal to another government to help them sneak him out.
At this point, the film becomes less spy thriller and more psychological game as the three agents fall into a schedule of watching over their captive and bickering amongst themselves as cabin fever sets in. The doctor does his part to incite the quarrels, taunting them and playing them against one another, hoping they’ll either kill him or drop their guards long enough for him to escape.
Complicating things further, Rachel discovers she’s pregnant (a fact the doctor recognizes immediately) by one of her colleagues. This sets up a tense (but unfortunately undeveloped) romantic triangle that does nothing to help solve the problem of what to do when you have a Nazi chained up in your front parlour.
Jessica Chastain continues to prove herself as a big time movie-star-in-the-making by doing a forceful and realistic job of portraying a younger Helen Mirren (apparently Chastain studied Mirren’s early film roles to get a sense of how she moved and held herself as a twenty-something woman). Of the three 1960s characters, she is the only one who seems genuinely connected to her 1990s self.
Both Worthington and Csokas do a solid job with their roles but neither can keep up with Chastain’s on-screen radiance, which makes it a little hard to believe that Rachel would have been so easily drawn in by either one of these men. It would have been wonderful to see her tangle with a couple of actors who could match her strength.
The Debt hinges on a perfectly executed plot twist midway through the film that turns the story you thought you were watching on its ear and sets up the trip back to 1997 as Rachel is suddenly forced to face the consequences of the trio’s actions back in that tiny Berlin apartment 30 years earlier.
The film’s final, brutal moments are a nail-biting reminder of the fact that your actions in life, no matter how well-intentioned, will always come back to haunt you in the end.
The Debt may technically be recycled story material, owing its existence to its foreign predecessor, but ultimately this remake is a worthy investment of both your time and cinema dollars.