Friday, November 18, 2011

Replaying Old Debts

The Debt has been marketed as a Nazi-hunting thriller, which has been done quite a few times before, sometimes good, often bad.

But it’s got the likes of Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds in it, the latter once again playing a doomed Mossad agent as he did in Munich.

Furthermore, the film is a remake and even the trailer for the remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo looked pretty pointless, the titular “girl” looking completely wrong compared with the real “thing”.

But this is a remake of an Israeli film, Ha-Hov, which is unusual, and it’s directed by John Madden, who is not exactly a lightweight, whatever one might think of films like Shakespeare in Love and Mrs Brown.

Moreover, it has three very interesting (and attractive) new actors in it, Californian Jessica Chastain, Kiwi Martin Csokas and Australian Sam Worthington as the younger versions of the more senior actors above.

What’s it all about? Back in the mid-Sixties three Mossad agents tried to abduct a Nazi from East Berlin and take him to Israel to stand trial. In the present the one agent’s daughter has published a book on that heroic episode and is very proud of her mother, Rachel (Mirren).

But it’s not quite as cut and dried as that. Switching back and forth between two eras, one of the things the film effectively shows is how passion, beauty and ideals can fade into bitter, recriminatory middle age, as symbolized - among others - by the angry scar on Rachel’s face.

The three younger actors do a brilliant job of playing agents holed up in an apartment in communist East Germany, looking after their Nazi captive. The paranoia and sexual tension is palpable and the horrible truth is that they have become their captive’s captives, which he milks to its violent extreme.

The beauty of the story is that its marketing will have attracted many of those who might want to see a very watchable, sensual but safe historical thriller. They might be in for a surprise, for with Biblical simplicity and ingenuity The Debt is not so much about redressing past injustices perpetrated against Jews as it is a sobering allegory on Israel’s very troubled present.

Neil Sonnekus

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