Saturday, September 3, 2011

Review: "The Dept"

Jessica Chastain has taken 2011 by storm with a brilliant turn in Terrence Malick's Palme d'Or-winning The Tree of Life, a scene-stealing role in The Help and a supporting role in Ralph Fiennes' upcoming, much buzzed about film Coriolanus. In The Debt she plays the younger version of Helen Mirren, one of Hollywood's most revered actresses. John Madden's film is a dual narrative set in 1966 in East Berlin and in 1997 in Israel. The story centres around a mission involving a trio of Mossad agents and the repercussions three decades later. Both Chastain and Mirren are great in the film, but the story gets slightly muddled in the middle and I did not care so much for the performances by Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas (on the other hand, I did like both CiarĂ¡n Hinds and Tom Wilkinson, their older counterparts). The film, which seemed to enter theatres without much fanfare (though television spots did seem more rampant of late), is directed by John Madden, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for Shakespeare in Love. The film's co-producer and writer, Matthew Vaughn, co-wrote and directed Stardust (2007) this summer's X-Men: First Class (2011). The film is an American remake of an Israeli film of the same name, which was released in 2007 but had no North American distribution. The film is similar in theme and story to Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated Munich (2007), which is a grittier and more controversial story about Mossad agents in Germany. I enjoyed The Debt, but I do feel it was bogged down too much by the pacing and execution of its story. I would have preferred if the two narratives were more closely linked instead of having huge chunks of each story revealed one at a time. There is a major secret waiting to be uncovered, but its consequences would have been stronger had it been disclosed earlier. I am not sure if the film would benefit from being rooted more heavily in the past, or in recent past, or if the plot needed to be more linear. Nonetheless, The Debt has a strong story, though it would have been more emotionally profound had the story been more focused. The story lines do not feel cohesive because there is a disconnect between the actors in each era.

Beginning in 1997 in Tel Aviv, Rachel Singer (Mirren) is celebrating the release of her daughter Sarah's (Romi Aboulafia) book. The book details the Mossad mission involving Rachel, Sarah's father Stefan (Wilkinson) and David (Hinds). On the way to the reading, David commits suicide and the far-reaching consequences threaten Sarah and her family's well-being. In 1966 Rachel (Chastain), Stefan (Csokas) and David (Worthington) were in East Berlin to track down a Nazi war criminal. The man in question, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), was posing as a gynecologist and Mossad enlisted Rachel to prove his identity. During their investigation a complicated love triangle emerged between the three Israeli agents. Stefan found himself falling in love with Rachel while Rachel was falling in love with David. David, meanwhile, tried to mask his affection for her. They find themselves in trouble when their plan to send Vogel out of East Berlin goes awry and the three agents enter into a pact to mask the truth. This truth, which has affected all three members of the team for three decades, is now threatening to destroy Rachel Singer and the life she has built for her family.

The Debt premiered at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival and was originally scheduled for a December 2010 release. This would have pitted the film against Oscar hopefuls and I doubt that the film would have garnered as much acclaim alongside Black Swan, The Fighter and True Grit. This is a decent film, but it works as a summer distraction, but not a hard-hitting fall drama. My chief complaint, other than Sam Worthington's dramatic shortcomings, is the mistreatment of the plot. Roger Ebert voiced his concerns in his two-and-a-half- star review, highlighting the inconsistency of the film: "The younger versions of the characters have scenes that are intrinsically more exciting, but the actors playing the older characters are more interesting [...] To be sure, the older actors get some excitement of their own, but by then, the plot has lost its way." Overall, The Debt wants to be two stories with only one set of characters played by two sets of actors. Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain are great actresses and deliver great performances, but there is not a lot of consistency.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

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