I think it’s time to take Helen Mirren down a peg. I know, I know – I have just committed a cinematic cardinal sin. Mirren resides in the hallowed domain roughly between Katherine Hepburn and Meryl Streep. Her mere presence in a film is expected to elevate its artistic value to Olympian heights. And indeed it has done just that in countless spellbinding, compelling performances. But let’s face it— sometimes Dame Mirren is simply scowling, allowing herself to be photographed without makeup, and showing off her handsome cleavage.
Yes, it is nice to have solid proof of sex appeal after sixty, but I think that with the crisp political thriller The Debt, we can all get off our knees and admit that there are actually other actors on the screen with the highly-praised actress. Other terrific actors.
Okay, here’s the set-up. The Debt, directed by John Madden of Shakespeare in Love fame, is a visual dialogue between events of 1997 and flashbacks to 1965. In the past a trio of Mossad agents arrived in East Berlin to track and capture a Nazi war criminal, Dieter Vogel. Vogel, “the Surgeon of Birkenau” performed horrifying experiments on Jews in World War II, and the agents have been dispatched to bring him to justice at a war crimes tribunal in Israel.
We meet the young agents—Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), and David Peretz (Sam Worthington) as they arrive at an apartment safe house where their third partner, Stefan Gold (Marton Csokas) is already in place. The film cuts back and forth between the tense discovery and entrapment of the former Nazi, in a new identity as a practicing gynecologist, and the agents in 1997, where they are living legends, but obviously carrying around dark secrets about their mission of 30 years before.
A great ensemble! [Mini-digression…..one huge exception—Sam Worthington, a blunt-faced actor who stunk up Avatar and destroyed Perseus simply by showing up for work. Worthington wields the emotional range and nuance of Anderson Cooper on valium. I’ve seen granola with more attitude than this guy. And through the miracle of creative casting we are to believe that the magnificent Irish actor Ciaran Hinds, whose eyebrows could give angst lessons, is the grown-up version of Worthington’s character. Ha!]
This said, every other actor on the screen is up to the pace we expect from Mirren.
Dashing, intelligent and extravagently sexy, Marton Csokas ignites the screen with ferocious focus. As the most volatile member of the young Mossad trio, he calls the shots and he (played in present-day by the great Tom Wilkinson) has most to lose when the other two succumb to their own inner demons. Jessica Chastain (the young version of Mirren)—the actress of the moment—blends quicksilver reactions and sensitivity to inflect her character, torn between the two men she’s working with and conflicted about just what lengths she’s willing to endure on this mission. But for us to believe that this porcelain-hued, delicate actress with a ski-jump nose will grow up into the gritty, somber visage of Helen Mirren, is just plain ludicrous.
Mirren finds her match, and then some, in Danish actor Jesper Christensen, who as the hounded Nazi is an unforgettable implosion of emotional torque. He is relentless in creating a character powerful and complicated enough to balance the three young agents conspiring to bring him to justice.
Alternating pathos and cunning, Christensen’s face is lean and hungry – almost a dead ringer for the late British painter Lucian Freud. But it’s his voice that gnaws away at our dreams. The final scenes between Mirren and Christensen left me drained. It was impossible to breathe during most of this film—but especially at the ending, which was unfortunately (not to reveal too much) not believable.
Tightly coiled and crisply edited, The Debt moves and moves and never lets up. It is a tale of surfaces and underlying digressions, of how legends invariably conceal all-too-human depths. Whether in the end it was worth the incredible ensemble compiled (excepting Worthington), must remain a matter of taste. But just to see Christensen simmer and snarl, and to hear the shocking lines the script writers supply him with, is well worth the time and money.