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The Debt movie poster

The Debt: Movie Review

Genre: Drama, Thriller
Rated: R
Directed by: John Madden

Starring: Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, Marton Csokas
Released by: Focus Features

In Short: Casting mistakes and pacing problems make this mystery thriller set in post-World War II Israel and East Berlin a less-than-satisfying adventure.

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Israelis, Nazis Clash in a Tale That Spans Decades

Based on an Israeli film of the same name, "The Debt" has been sitting on the shelf for the last two years. The victim of the closing of Miramax Films, it sat in limbo since 2009 until Focus Features released it in 2011.

Directed by "Shakespeare in Love" auteur John Madden, the movie shifts back and forth in time, first following three young Israeli Mossad agents (Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) on a 1965 mission to East Berlin. They are in the hunt for a Nazi war criminal (a doctor who experimented on Jews in the concentration camps), with the intention of bringing him to Israel to stand trial. It's a mission fraught with danger, romance and intrigue.

That's one plot line; the other takes place in present-day Tel Aviv, where the three agents are still haunted by that fateful experience. Helen Mirren, Ciarán Hinds and Tom Wilkinson play the older versions, and as the story unfolds, shifting back and forth from past to present, we discover that all is not as it seems when it comes to that long-ago mission.

Helen Mirren in The Debt Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington in The Debt

"The Debt" is a generally enjoyable mystery thriller, but unfortunately Madden chooses to rehash certain scenes over and over, so there comes a point where you might feel like screaming, "Get on with it already! We've already seen this scene, we get it!" He uses the technique to reveal key plot points, but instead of engaging the viewer, it takes you out of the story, as you begin to wonder why the scene is being repeated verbatim.

The other, albeit more minor problem with the film is in the casting. For while Jessica Chastain is one of the more likable and talented women to hit the big screen in a while, she bears scant resemblance to Helen Mirren, and has a cleft in her chin. So each time the story cuts from the young character to her older iteration, you can't help but go, "Wait, where did that cleft go?" So again, viewers are pulled out of the story, instead of being totally engaged in trying to solve the mystery that is unraveling across the years. And the male actors are equally unmatched from young adulthood to late middle age; Sam Worthington looks nothing like Ciarán Hinds!

Also, those with a squeamish side should be warned that as this thriller twists and turns, there are some seriously gory sequences (thus the R rating).


Reviewed by Jenny Peters


(Updated: 08/31/11 NW)

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