Deborah Ross

Mind the gap | 1 October 2011

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Ho-hum. Another week, another batch of secret agents, and while I have nothing against secret agents personally — they are generally willing to die for their country, which is nice, although probably quite tiring — The Debt never equals the sum of its parts. It has a blinding cast (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds) and there are some good things to be said for it but it never fully compels or meshes as the emotionally driven, multilayered, grown-up thriller it yearns to be. Plus, it is certainly in the running for my annual, much uncoveted Most Preposterous Third Act Award. The do, if you are interested, is always held at Claridges, where, in keeping with the spirit of the prize, we will either walk undamaged from a car wreck or come back from the dead or be whisked off by an alien, perhaps in the form of a giant bird. It usually depends on how we feel on the night.

Anyway, directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), this is actually a remake of the Israeli film, Ha-Hov, and although Ha-Hov may also have been ho-hum, I can’t say for sure as I didn’t see it. This flits — rather nimbly, as it happens — between two timeframes and two cities, and opens in Tel Aviv in 1997 with Mossad agent Rachel Singer (Mirren) being fêted for her heroism 30 years earlier when, along with two fellow agents, Stephan and David (Wilkinson and Hinds), she travelled to East Berlin and tracked down the Nazi war criminal Vogel (Jesper Christensen), otherwise known as ‘the surgeon of Birkenau’.

The trio were under instruction to bring Vogel back to Israel to stand trial, but it all went a bit belly-up, and Vogel was shot...or was he? Might these agents have actually been living a lie all these years and, if so, what did actually happen? Rachel has a scar from that time, physically, on her cheek, but might she be scarred in other ways, too? And have you got it, so I can now stop posing questions like this? Great.

So the film also flashes back to Berlin in the Sixties, when Helen and Tom and Ciarán are not just young, but have also mutated into Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington, and if the fact that they look nothing like their older counterparts were not disconnecting enough, I should add that everyone speaks English with Israeli accents, even to each other. You are always aware of the acting, is what I’m saying.

Still, the first half, which is the infinitely better half, is quite absorbing, particularly the scenes where the young Rachel finds Vogel working as a gynaecologist and has to pose as a young wife with fertility problems. She becomes one of his patients, and the scenes where she puts her feet up into those stirrups and he examines her — ‘This is my hand, this is my speculum’ — are phenomenally gripping, intimate and intense; quite like Marathon Man, but with fannies instead of teeth. There is also a wonderfully exciting kidnap scene.

But...and it’s a big ‘but’, so pay attention — the scenes where Vogel is kept in a safe house are allowed to drag on, the time frame gives away too much of the plot too early, and you’re always somehow aware of what this film is trying to do while never quite getting there. There is a gap in this movie between where it wants to get to and what is achieved. It wants to have real, character-led, emotional heft and, to this end, the agents are involved in a love triangle which, far from adding depth, just bogs everything down weightily. There is no chemistry between any of them, plus David, as a character, is such a blank.

And although you can sense it straining to explore the bigger themes of revenge, conscience, guilt and what happens to someone when the truth bubbles up after 30 years, it actually doesn’t come down to much more than one of those old-school battles between good and evil.

Look, this isn’t a terrible film and if it were on TV on a Saturday night you might want to give it a go. You may even stay awake to the end, when Ms Mirren is recomissioned and dispatched to Latvia for what is almost a Bourne-style ending. Obviously, the big bird wasn’t available that night. It often isn’t. It’s quite busy, you know.