The Debt: late for the train

A few weeks ago I saw a trailer for The Debt, a remake of the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov about three young intelligence agents getting into trouble on a mission to abduct a former Nazi doctor in 1960s East Berlin, and it didn’t seem particularly appetising: rapidly cut together action scenes with mucho emoting juxtaposed with somewhat maudlin snippets of the same three characters mooching about regretfully thirty-odd years later, when they’re now being played by different actors, and even the fact that one of the older actors is the redoubtable Helen Mirren didn’t inspire me much.

Well, so much for trailers. The Debt is actually a pretty damn good action-drama, in a sort of looks-political-but-ends-up-personal way, which holds your attention all the way through and has at least two enjoyably clammy and nail-bitey setpieces that are as thoroughly thrilling as the most celebrated of heist sequences (think Rififi, The First Great Train Robbery, Kubrick’s The Killing and so on). Like the recent Sarah’s Key, the film takes place in two time-frames, and also like that film the scenes set in the past are in general more effective than those set in the present, though the modern framing story is much better integrated into the drama here. The young agents are convincingly variously portrayed as inexperienced, hopelessly idealistic, courageous, loyal, frightened and ultimately cynical, and the contrast between their surface cool and their inner turmoil powers the drama of their brave and risky attempt to kidnap a slippery war criminal. When their plot starts to unravel they find themselves isolated and are forced to make decisions that will compromise their moral integrity, and the way these three very different characters deal with (or find themselves unable to deal with) these choices informs the modern day sequences that are intercut with the 1960s ones.

Dialogue-wise The Debt is fairly functional and expository, and there were a couple of times I winced a bit at the lines Mirren and her reliably watchable co-stars Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds were given (although this flat dialogue style seemed to work fine for the 1960s sections, where the three agents are played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington), but the final sequence of the film when Mirren’s character faces up to her past do redeem this failing, being as it is light on words and strong on atmosphere and tension. The best performance in the film is by Jesper Christensen as the so-called Surgeon of Birkenau, who manages to convey a malign and probing intelligence even as he’s speaking some pretty hackneyed lines written in the “unrepentant villain” mode. Despite these criticisms, the narrative line of the film is clear and goes in some interesting directions it’s hard to second-guess, and director John Madden’s grip on the material can’t be faulted. Unexpectedly involving.

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