I saw “The Debt” the other day, and while I have reservations about the film, I have none whatsoever about Helen Mirren’s performance. I only wish there had been more of it.
“The Debt” is a remake of a recent Israeli film “Ha-Hov.” I can’t go into detail without spoiling, but let’s just say the filmmakers had a choice as to what to focus on—the suspenseful story of capturing a Nazi war criminal in East Berlin in 1966, or how these events affected the lives of the three Mossad agents involved in the decades that followed. And I think they blew it in opting for the simpler hunt and capture of the villain. Sadly, this means not enough Helen Mirren, which makes “The Debt” a frustrating experience. Her ability to make even mediocre material shine could have been put to better use here.
She plays Rachel Singer, a national hero for her role in capturing and killing the Surgeon of Birkenau (Danish actor Jesper Christiansen). Her younger self is played by Jessica Chastain who, while a skilled actress, didn’t show half the steel needed to do what we see her doing. She has a soft core, and even after the events in 1966 unfold, you don’t believe for a moment that she’ll age into the woman Helen Mirren portrays. Her Mossad cohorts, played by Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington, are the clichéd tough cynic and mysterious romantic, who turn out to be not quite as intriguing as their older counterparts (Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds, respectively).
The film would have been far more memorable with less derring-do (except for the end) and a greater focus on how these three people lived with what they did and the adulation that followed. We get only a very small taste of this, and it’s with the still- young Stefan, David and Rachel, not their aging selves. Helen Mirren would have gone to town with the chance to play the ambiguity and guilt necessitated by this type of story. But then it would have been a far more complex movie, and I don’t think the filmmakers really wanted to go there. They settled for a Nazi hunt, and while it’s not bad, it could have been so much better—and deeper.
Speaking of Dame Helen, I’ll be saying more in the future, especially after NBC’s “Prime Suspect” debuts. Already I’m irked by their renaming her “Jane Timoney” and Maria Bello’s hat is perched on my last nerve. But I’ll be gracious and give it a shot (yeah, right).