by Richard von Busack
WELL TITLED: The Debt. Indeed, the producers do owe me two hours of my life back. In 1997 in Tel Aviv, Rachel (Helen Mirren) is telling crowds the true story of how she killed the infamous “Surgeon of Birkenau.” Beaten up and slashed by the Nazi doctor in the 1960s, she managed to pot him in the back with a revolver at about 400 feet. Good shot!
Attacking the book circuit with this likely story, Rachel encounters two people from her past. One is the shame-ridden David (Ciarán Hinds), the other is the wheelchair-bound Le Carréan spook Stephan (Tom Wilkinson). Talking to Stephan over lunch, Rachel asks, “Who are you, the jealous ex-husband or the intelligence officer?” That’s exposition, and you need three credited writers for it.
In flashback, the three are played by Jessica Chastain, the stolid Sam Worthington (David) and Marton Csokas (Stephan). This Israeli cell schemes to capture the Surgeon, to haul him over the Wall and take him back for trial.
But the three get emotionally tangled, mistakes are made and the situation heads south rather than west as planned. The Debt’s point is the same as its original, the Israeli film Ha-Hov. It can be summed up as “when going for revenge, dig two graves: one for yourself and one for the Nazi who'll be taunting you as you dig, saying things like ‘You Jews don’t know how to kill, only how to die.’”
Jesper “Mr. White” Christensen certainly reinforces the law that your movie is only as good as its Nazi, and he gives a Marathon Man–style pelvic exam which has some tension. Director John Madden sets up a promising iron-curtain escape (using the “ghost stations” on the West Berlin U-Bahn). Disbelief must be suspended, though—particularly the thought that all the noise these Israelis make wouldn’t attract the attention of the all-watchful Stasi.
The Debt has a before and after but not really a center, and it’s littered with bad-novel moments, such as a character reappearing after years by saying, “I was in a kind of hospital.”
Trying to make this knit together would take a kind of surgeon, and Madden isn’t it. He can’t boil the starch out of an ethical problem which might bother a Quaker but not to anyone who feels calm about watching a Nazi get it.