The Debt falls into the category of solid but nothing exceptional. It’s a handsomely made film with fine performances and handles a potentially confusing structure with quite a bit of class and restraint. But it’s nothing that will leave a mark, especially when certain other movies treading similarly themed waters (Munich being a prime example) go beyond the call of duty and make something special.
The plot of The Debt (which is actually a remake of a 2007 Israeli film of the same name) jumps back and forth between the mid ‘90s and mid ‘60s, telling a parallel story of the same characters older and younger. The older trio are played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds, whereas their younger counterparts are played by Jessica Chastain (of The Tree of Life fame), Marton Csokas (the “who’s that?” of the otherwise star-studded cast) and Sam Worthington, respectively. They play a trio of Mossad secret agents who kidnap a Nazi war criminal, attempting to bring him from Berlin to Israel in order for him to stand trial for war crimes.
Although packed to the brim with big names and wonderful character actors, this is clearly Mirren’s film. Even if Chastain does a great job (she is a very convincing younger version of Mirren), Mirren is the one with all the emotional and dramatic heavy-lifting to do. Having said that, it’s in the ‘60s time period (when the top secret mission is taking place) that the film works best, not because that’s where you’ll get anything resembling blockbuster action (far from it, in fact), but that’s where the “meat” of the film is - the ‘90s segments feel more like the wrap-up stuff. Not that’s there’s anything wrong with that, mind you, but the film feels far more alive and enjoyable in the older setting.
Director John Madden (Shakespeare In Love) and writers Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman (who wrote Kick-Ass and Stardust together) and Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) take a potentially overly complicated story and tell it in a competent, easily understandable way but at the same time without feeling like its dumb-down or unintelligent. A welcome balance indeed.
The Debt joins the 2011 ranks - alongside the likes of Fair Game and The Company Men - of films that are well made but are not overly memorable. It's very competent for what it is, aimed squarely at audiences who want a bit of weight to their cinematic excitement. It’s just not anything that will be talked about that much in years to come.