Lost in translation
Remake of Israeli thriller falls flat
JESSICA CHASTAIN appears to be the hardest-working woman in show business.
She's in "The Help," she's in "The Debt" which opens today, she's in "Take Shelter," which opens in two weeks. She was in "Tree of Life."
Given that movies take months to shoot, you wonder how this is possible. In the case of "The Debt," it's because the movie's been sitting around for a few years, caught in business limbo in the Miramax/Disney dustup.
Its roots actually go back farther than that - it's a remake of a 1977 Israeli thriller ("Ha-Hov") about three Mossad agents assigned to kill a Nazi war criminal hiding in East Berlin.
Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas play the agents as they undertake their postwar mission, holed up in a shabby apartment, plotting the abduction and evacuation of their Josef Mengele-like target (Jesper Christensen).
The movie flashes forward to 1997, as the agents look back on their now-celebrated actions, quietly haunted by facts known only to them. The older versions are played by Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Wilkinson.
Director John Madden was surely thrilled to assemble a cast of this stature and skill, but something doesn't add up. None of the older actors looks or sounds remotely like their younger counterparts, and there's not a believable Israeli in the house. And the chronology seems weird - by extending the interval of the flashbacks some 20 years (compared with the Israeli movie), Madden creates some credibility problems.
The movie also crawls a bit in East Berlin. The agents end up forming a love triangle - Csokas' team leader pursues Chastain's character, who is more interested in the other agent, leading to complications that continue to affect their lives decades down the line.
There is little chemistry among any of the principals, alas. This becomes clear when the Nazi, eventually their captive, begins to play mind games with the agents as they look for a way to sneak him into West Berlin. All the electricity missing in the romantic scenes is present when Christiansen, as the creepy ex-Nazi, exploits the psychological weaknesses of his captors. These are related to the agents' own reasons for joining the Mossad, tied to their own family histories regarding the Holocaust.
There is potential here for a "Munich"-like examination of revenge and its unknowable/unmanageable moral algorithms. "The Debt," though, doesn't involve us on a simple, character level, so its larger ambitions go unfulfilled.