Sep 7, 2011

The Debt

An uneven, unconvincing film by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) about the story of Mossad agents on a mission to capture a horrible Nazi doctor, The Debt could have been a much more competent movie. As it is, one thinks one is going to see a Mossad caper, only to find out it's an interpersonal spy love drama about truth and lies. I'm curious whether the source material, an original Israeli film, was better at tying everything together.
Many things fail to convince in this film, the casting being first among them. For a convincing Israeli accent in English, the only movie that can serve as reference has got to be Adam Sandler's hilarious Don't Mess With the Zohan. Granted, the Israeli accent is heavily phlegmy, so Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Chastain et al, come up with varying degrees of mittel-European that are daintier but not very authentic. Marton Czokas is the one who fares best in the accent and Israeli deportment category.
The Mossad agents are supposed to speak Hebrew among themselves in heavily accented English.  They are on a mission to capture a Mengele-ish Nazi doctor in East Germany and bring him to trial in Israel. They also seem to be the most incompetent Mossad agents in history, because they bungle everything. At one point, the Nazi, (the excellent Jesper Christensen) who has been speaking German to them all the time, switches to English, which must mean he speaks flawless Hebrew. This is extremely confusing, distracting and ridiculous.
People are making much about the fact that Jessica Chastain doesn't look anything like Helen Mirren, who plays Chastain's character later in life. That didn't bother me as much as Sam Worthington, a kid whose stonefaced appeal totally eludes me, becoming Ciaran Hinds, or the very handsome Marton Czokas becoming Tom Wilkinson. I actually thought Chastain and Mirren were quite good as the same person. As good as he is in everything, I just can't see Tom Wilkinson as an Israeli. Furthermore, the movie is so clunky that even he and Mirren, who can usually do no wrong, seem unconvincing.
The actors seem as uncomfortable with the fake accents as they are with the tone deaf, grandstanding dialogue. But it is nice to hear them speak German and Russian (but no Hebrew). The best actor in the movie (and this is becoming some sort of terrible-fabulous cliche, what with Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes and Bruno Ganz being fabulous Nazis in movies) is Christensen, who is chillingly, efficiently and humanly evil. 
The gist of the movie, which is that these people lied for years in the service of national healing and of their own job preservation, is very interesting, but it gets lost in the piecemeal handling of personal drama, spy action and history lesson. There is a much smarter, tighter movie buried within the premise of The Debt.

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