The Debt

2 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: December 28, 2011
A narrative in search of a story

Based on the 2007 film of the same name (written by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum—Bernstein also directed), three more wordsmiths (Matthew Vaughan, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan) haven’t found the collective skill to bring this chronicle of the “Surgeon of Treblinka” anywhere near close to the special realm of a hair-raising thriller.

Director John Madden has been blessed with a superb cast and exceptionally talented crew (notably the makeup department who—under production designer Jim Clay’s artful watch—combine to marvellous effect crafting the monster then and now, everything ideally captured by cinematographer Ben Davis) but the major plot points repeatedly fail the credibility test, leaving precious little to surprise much less drive the action forward. Despite its more sombre overall tone, this year’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is miles ahead in the secret agent sweepstakes.

Everything’s just too easy. Having literally faked her way into the evil doctor’s sights, Young Rachel (Jessica Chastain) and her Mossad associates (Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas) readily kidnap the unrepentant murderer only to be stuck with him in the Berlin safe house after the unseen Americans refuse to help spirit the evil Nazi back to Israel for trial. Jesper Christensen turns in a first-rate portrait of unchecked hate: his taunts of his captors and too-easy-by-half self-liberation are simultaneously the best and worst moments of the production. Nonetheless, a decades long lie is born of necessity just as surely as Young Rachel comes full term with her daughter conceived “on the mission.”

Thirty years later there’s more than a little sense of déjà vu when the three amigos wrestle with the unexpected reappearance of the Doctor of Death. Naturally, it’s Rachel who is loaded up with a further syringe and sent to truly dispatch their former house guest who didn’t have the decency to off himself or stay permanently undercover lo these many years. As the mature Rachel, Helen Mirren uses her range of delivery and always expressive visage to look and sound the part of the unstoppable avenger, but—once again, now tiresome—is forced to make child’s play out of stalking her unsuspecting prey and setting up the inevitable showdown. The weakest link here concerns the lack of clout by the local journalist who dutifully waits for the official start of visiting hours before his already scheduled interview with the devil. Really?

Let’s hope that four years from now a different approach from more experienced-with-the-genre screenwriters have another go at seeking justice—real or imagined—and scaring the bejesus out of can’t-look-away-for-a-moment viewers. With any luck, the principals might still be available to complete their task. JWR

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