September 16, 2011

MOVIES: The Debt (John Madden, 2011)

The Debt is a reasonably entertaining thriller about the price we pay for lies, and whether or not a lie can ever take on enough weight that it is more honorable to continue telling it than to tell the truth.

The story leaps between two time periods. In 1965, three young Israeli agents (Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, and Marton Csokas) go undercover in East Berlin. Their assignment is to capture a doctor known as "The Surgeon of Birkenau" and bring him back to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes. Things go horribly wrong, as they are wont to do in such stories, and the three convince one another that to tell the truth about their mission would disgrace not only themselves, but their young nation.

Thirty years later, that lie is still weighing on the lives on the threesome (now played by Ciaran Hinds, Helen Mirren, and Tom Wilkinson) and those around them; Mirren and Wilkinson's daughter has just published a book about the official version of events, in which her parents are heroes. How far should they go when it appears that their lie is about to be exposed?

I can't say there's anything particularly surprising about the story; you can see the love triangle among the principals coming a mile away, and the nature of the big lie is fairly obvious as soon as we hear it. But it plays out with great energy, and the action sequences are tense and suspenseful.

The performances are generally strong, with Chastain continuing to build on the marvelous year she's having. Accents are occasionally distracting; everyone is attempting a blandly generic Israeli accent, but the underlying accents of the international cast slip through from time to time, with Worthington's Australian vowels being particularly grating.

A combination of smart casting and skillful makeup allows the three young/old pairs of actors to be mostly convincing (though it is a bit hard to believe that the pretty young Worthington will grow up to look anything like Hinds), with the Csokas/Wilkinson pairing being particularly inspired.

Not essential viewing, certainly, but worth catching on cable/DVD, and not a terrible afternoon in the theater if the cast appeals or if you like this sort of story.

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