Best known as the director responsible for such safe, middle brow, award-bothering prestige productions such as Mrs Brown (1997), Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Captain Correlli’s Mandolin (2001), John Madden returns with a thriller written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn. As might be expected from the writing team behind X-Men: First Class (2011) and Kick-Ass (2010), The Debt is a kinetic thriller that is forever promising to erupt into something a good deal more complex. However, much like both Kick-Ass and First Class, The Debt is a film that works best when it is in movement as its quiet character moments are under-written and under-powered despite some decent performances by two eye-catching casts.
Split between two timelines, The Debt tells the story of a group of 1960s Mossad agents who are sent into Soviet-controlled East Germany to kidnap a Nazi war criminal. Forced to live together, the three agents quickly stumble into a love triangle that finds the quietly intense Rachel (Jessica Chastain) having to choose between the introverted idealist David (Sam Worthington) and the arrogantly ambitious Stephan (Marton Csokas). When the kidnapping goes wrong, the three young people find themselves having to babysit an aging but fiercely intelligent Nazi who relentless probes their weaknesses and tries to set them against each other. Bookending this middle section is the film’s second timeline. Set in the 1990s, this timeframe explores the psychological consequences of the events of the film’s middle section. Still physically and psychologically scarred by her ordeal, Older Rachel (Helen Mirren) shifts uncomfortably as her daughter pays public tribute to her heroism. Meanwhile, Older David (Ciaran Hinds) is crippled by the burden of guilt and secrecy while Older Stephan’s (Tom Wilkinson) arrogant bluster has turned into tyrannical will-to-power.
The Debt features some excellent action direction and powerful sound-design that lends its fight sequences a brutal clarity that is terrifying when compared to expanses of quiet emotional desolation that dominate the rest of the film. The scenes in which a manipulative Nazi confronts the agents are similarly impressive even though Quentin Tarantino did the same thing only better in Inglorious Basterds (2009). Unfortunately, once the film moves beyond such genre staples, the limits to both the script and Madden’s direction start to become painfully evident.
Much of the film’s drama rests upon the tension of the plot colliding with both the characters’ back-stories and the bonds of affection that tie them together. While this occasionally works quite well (in particular the scene where Stephan seduces Rachel at the piano while the introverted David flinches in pain with every note they play), the film does not manage to pull off the bulk of its dramatic moves and because many of the film’s emotional beats fall short of the mark, many of the film’s sequences seem overly long and hopelessly flabby. Indeed, there were huge expanses of this film where time seemed to stand still as characters pouted and bemoaned some inner turmoil that never managed to feel real let alone seem particularly compelling.
The problem is that while The Debt had the potential to be an interesting genre film, the filmmakers clearly want it to be quite a bit more. Having secured a good deal of top-notch acting talent, you can sense their desire to make the most of it and maybe push for a few awards but, at the end of the day, both the script and the direction of The Debt fail to support these lofty ambitions and so a promising espionage thriller finds itself transformed into an over-long and dramatically dysfunctional exercise in thespian posturing. This film has nothing much to say about the human condition and its insistence on trying to say it for close to two hours is both depressingly and frustratingly tedious.