My final film for this year’s MIFF was originally advertised as a “surprise screening”, but once it was announced that the film was actually “The Debt”, I jumped at a chance at seeing it. This is the American remake of an Israeli film of the same name, which was actually my second favourite film at MIFF in 2008. Back when I wrote my review of that version, I lamented the fact that the American’s were already in the process of remaking it, but it has certainly taken its time getting here.
While there are some differences between the two films, the basic story remains the same. It is about three Mossad agents in 1967 who travel to Berlin to capture a Nazi war criminal and bring him back for trial. The mission is a success and the three become national heroes. However all is not what it seems and perhaps the agents have bent the truth a little. Thirty years later, someone from their past returns threatening to expose the truth, and the now much older agents must set out and right the wrongs of their previous mission and to repay a debt they owe the Israeli people.
For the most part, this is a very good remake, however I still favour the original. As is always the case, this remake is “bigger” than the original, but bigger doesn’t equate with being better, and as such I think this is the main flaw of the remake. The original film is a tight ninety minute affair with no flab, however this new version is a little over twenty minutes longer, and as a result of this the film drags a bit in the second half. They have added two new set-pieces to the film, the first of which is at a train station which I thought was a really nice addition, but the second at a newspaper office was not needed and only worked in slowing the film down dramatically and lessening its impact.
The film is most successful in the section set in 1967 when the agents are young and attempting to catch the war criminal. This section is just as good as the original, with the exception that it is all spoken in accented English. It just sounds a little weird, and as good as Sam Worthington is in his role of David, he does slip into his Aussie accent now and then, especially when he is yelling. Imagine how excited I was when I found out that Jessica Chastain plays the role of Rachel in this version of “The Debt”. I was beside myself, but she plays a much different role here involved in a lot of action and she does get quite bloody and bruised. She is still incredibly gorgeous though.
Once the film reverts back to the 90’s, it starts to lose something unfortunately. Helen Mirren plays the adult Rachel during this section of the film and it was almost like the producers thought because they had gotten her for the role, they better beef it up for her, which is a detriment to the film as a whole. As I have said already, the film slows to a snail pace until the finale, and as such isn’t able to hold the sustained tension like the original. Another problem in this part of the film is Tom Wilkinson who plays the adult Stephan. He is an admittedly fine actor, but he hasn’t even bothered to try an Israeli accent, he just keeps his British one. It just sounds a little odd because when Marton Csokas plays the young Stephan he has a thick accent, which appears to have gone completely at the end of the film when Tom Wilkinson takes over the role. Also the fate of the Stephan character has been changed in this version and is much less satisfying.
Overall though, director John Madden has done a good job with his remake of “The Debt”. The first half is definitely on par with the original film, only to be sadly let down a little by the second half, still this was a film that I enjoyed immensely.