The Debt (2011)
Directed by John Madden
Photo credit: Laurie Sparham
An elegant middle-aged woman with a horrific scar carved into her cheek demands our immediate attention. Who is she and who could possibly be responsible for such cruel disfigurement? As the plot unfolds, we learn that this woman, “Rachel Singer,” is Israeli, and yet she does not have an Israeli accent. When we meet her, the year is 1997, but then the story carries us back to 1966, where we are told she is 25. The math is easy: 25 in 1966 means Rachel Singer was born sometime around 1941. Is she from Europe? Is she a survivor? Is her scar from the Holocaust? Yes . . . and no . . .
John Madden’s new thriller The Debt is based on a 2007 film by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum called Ha Hov. I saw Ha Hov in 2008 when it played in our Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema and I hated it. It was the one film on that year’s schedule that I refused to recommend. Look it up in our Films for Two database and you will see: “Great cast wasted in plodding, far-fetched drama about Mossad agents hunting down a Nazi war criminal.”
And yet, even though I knew absolutely every important plot point (not a one of which has been changed), The Debt literally kept me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. At one point, I balled up my shawl, stuck the edge into my mouth, and bit down hard so the people sitting next to me wouldn’t hear me shriek. How to explain such a change?
Let’s start with the cast. Clearly I had no objections to the cast of Ha Hov. Who could object to casting Gila Almagor (“the First Lady of Israeli Cinema”) as Rachel (called “Rachel Berner” in Ha Hov), and Neta Garty (so lovely in Turn Left at the End of the World) seemed fine as “Young Rachel.” I just thought they were trapped in a dumb plot.
But even though Helen Mirren’s face appears in all the posters, it’s Jessica Chastain who owns The Debt. Chastain is this year’s “It Girl” (luminous as the mother in The Tree of Life and adorable as the bimbo in The Help), but I am still dumbfounded by her transformation into Young Rachel Singer.
There’s only one performance I can compare it to: in 1974, I walked into The Godfather: Part II having liked The Godfather well enough for a gangster flick, but wait! Who is this guy playing “Young Vito Corleone”? He’s phenomenal! Sure enough, DeNiro, who had some good credits before that, won an Oscar in 1975 which launched him into the cinematic stratosphere.
In both cases, the magic lies in an actor’s ability to embody a far more famous actor so completely that you really believe you are actually seeing the young Marlon Brando and the young Helen Mirren even though your brain certainly knows otherwise.
Photo credit: Laurie Sparham
The other star of The Debt is Alexander Berner. The first thing I did when I got back to my desk was ask IMDb (the Internet Movie Database): who is the editor of The Debt? Berner is even less well-known right now than Chastain is, but if you’re a cinephile like me and you see that one of his prior editing credits is The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008), then you go to sleep knowing your instincts were right on the money this time.
Last but not least, I suspect screenwriter Jane Goldman made subtle additions to a story that originally had no female input, shading Rachel’s character just enough to make her totally real to me. (Goldman and her writing partner Matthew Vaughn are best-known for the dynamic “superhero comedy” Kick-Ass.) Without watching Ha Hov again, I can’t be more specific, but since I’m not telling you to watch Ha Hov anyway, it really doesn’t matter.
I don’t want to say any more about the plot of The Debt because I want you to see it with all its mysteries still intact, so I’ll end with an open question which I hope we can discuss online and/or the next time we see each other out and about. Have we reached the point, as Jews, where our debt to the past is now in conflict with our debt to the future? This is the question that drives the plot of The Debt; this is the question that motivates everything Helen Mirren does in her scenes as Rachel Singer; this is a question that deserves our time and attention—as Jews—long after the thrills in this thriller are a distant memory.