“I think the best way to tell the story is by starting at the end, briefly, then going back to the beginning, and then periodically returning to the end… otherwise, it’s just sort of a linear story.”
So said Steve Coogan’s capitalist crook David Ershon in Adam McKay’s cop comedy, The Other Guys. The quote handily sums up a narrative structure we’ve all seen and read in dozens of novels and movies, from classic literary romances, such as Wuthering Heights, to comparatively modern cinema thrillers, such as Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way. It’s a device that director John Madden’s drama thriller The Debt also uses, though the results are somewhat mixed.
Beginning in 1997, we’re introduced to Rachel (Helen Mirren), a former Israeli intelligence agent who, along with fellow spies David (Ciarán Hinds) and Stefan (Tom Wilkinson), is famous for having undertaken a daring attempt to capture a Nazi war criminal (known as the Surgeon of Birkenau) at large in Berlin some 30 years earlier. But as a book about their exploits, written by Rachel’s daughter, is about to be launched, it’s vaguely apparent that the three agents are ill at ease with what happened all those years before.
With the 90s time frame established, the film then jumps back to 1965, and explores the mission in more detail. Here, the young Rachel is played by Jessica Chastain, David by Sam Worthington, and Stefan by Marton Csokas.
It’s in this part of the film that, in spite of the deadly earnestness of its acting and tone, The Debt reveals itself to be more akin to a broadly entertaining pulp thriller than a period drama. It contains all the trappings you need for a ripping yarn: a gutsy heroine, a swooning love triangle, and a top-secret mission of national importance to carry out.
The Debt’s script, co-written by Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn and Peter Straughan, doesn’t linger on the disturbing nature of the Surgeon’s acts for more than a few moments, and he’s really a talking MacGuffin, a grim hub for the moments of action and drama – but in the hands of seasoned actor Jesper Christensen, he makes for one hell of a MacGuffin.
A sly, calculating monster in human form, Christensen invests an otherwise two-dimensional character with hypnotic, feral energy. And as Rachel and her conspirators discover, capturing the Surgeon is the easier part of the mission – getting him out of Berlin and back to a courtroom in Israel will prove far, far more difficult.
Jessica Chastain is perfectly convincing as the brave yet fragile Rachel, and her moments with the evil Surgeon, brief though they are, positively crackle with energy. Even Sam Worthington, who’s normally dependable rather than memorable, is pretty good here, playing a lonely agent with his own personal reasons for wanting to catch his mark. And as the agents struggle to find a way of smuggling their prisoner out of East Germany, the relationship between the three of them gradually deteriorates, and the surgeon knows just how to widen the hairline cracks in the group.
It’s when The Debt flashes forward to the 90s that the narrative stumbles. Here, we’re left with a protracted and faintly ridiculous coda, with Helen Mirren playing the 50-something Rachel.
This is a pity, since the movie up to this point had been a perfectly serviceable thriller, with good performances and a decent, if somewhat obvious script. I was left with the distinct feeling that, if The Debt had concentrated on the young, sexy trio of agents doing their secret agent thing in 60s Berlin, it would have been a far better film.
Given Vaughn and Goldman’s previous collaborations on Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, it could be argued that The Debt represents something of a missed opportunity: I think the world needs a kind of secret agent trio laying waste to Cold War era cities, like Bourne crossed with, I don’t know, Charlie’s Angels or something of that ilk.
Instead, what we have is a mildly diverting thriller sandwich. It’s one with a great Cold War filling – all black roll-necked sweaters and gorgeous, Brylcreemed hair – but a rather stale slice of contemporary bread slapped on either side.