Payback

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When I found out what The Debt was really about, I greeted it with a sense of relief. Here’s what this movie is not: some hectoring documentary about Congress figuring out its financial super committee. 

After a strong showing at film festivals, and chatter that it may be a 2011 awards contender, The Debt, starring Helen Mirren, opens this week in wide release. 

Here’s what it is: Shakespeare in Love director John Madden’s version of the 2007 Israeli spy thriller Ha-Hov. Even if Madden’s version isn’t the worst offender, as remakes of foreign films go, it also isn’t much to write home about. Madden’s movie is pedigreed, pulse-quickening and perfectly respectable—and it has a good chance for some awards consideration.

With Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington as their younger selves, Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds play three retired Mossad agents in the 1990s, haunted by a mission gone wrong in the 1960s, in East Berlin. To avoid spoilers I won’t go deep into detail, but I will say that this is also a love story. And a hate story. And that Madden and company do manage at least the minimum required ick factor for any film involving the entrapment of a Nazi gynecologist. Jesper Christensen, as the token villain, helps things along by playing up the banality of evil.

Overall, the film reads as a sort of practice run at high seriousness from writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, of Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, and Peter Straughan, of The Men Who Stare at Goats. And in a way it’s O.K. if they need more practice; here, the script matters mostly for its stewardship of conceptual clarity. We couldn’t ask for a more direct description of moral ambiguity.

If there’s anything challenging about The Debt, it’s the actors. They’re why we really watch, to discover what Chastain can do out from under Terrence Malick (as it turns out, plenty, and The Help didn’t quite count); whether Worthington is worthy (let’s say sure); who Csokas is, exactly (aside from the actor who gives this film its nerviest performance); and how the elder trio maintains its poise in fake accents and a corseted flashback-intensive structure. 

When we’re less swept up, we may notice this cast not being very Jewish. It works in this movie, because its themes are so strenuously universal. Fair enough, but that willful lack of texture carries over to setting, too: neither the Cold War world nor the dubious 1990s nostalgia for it comes to life very much.

There is a twist—although in this movie’s listless schematic of moral compromise, it feels more like merely a slight bend—and a protracted geriatric grappling match that would be self-parodic even if something a lot like it hadn’t already been done, for laughs, on “Family Guy.” But that goes again to theme: How very unsettling, the settling of scores.

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