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'The Debt' pays off for some critics, shortchanges others

September 2, 2011 | 12:28 pm

The Debt
On paper, the new political thriller "The Debt" has the makings of Oscar bait, including successful source material in the 2007 Israeli film "Ha-Hov" and a cast boasting rising stars (Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington) and established ones (Helen Mirren). But while some critics are praising the film's cast and its intricate plot, about a trio of former Mossad agents confronting their Nazi-hunting past, others are calling it more a pulp film than a prestige picture.

The Times' own Betsy Sharkey is in the former camp. In a very positive review, she writes: "Bristling with dangers both corporeal and cerebral, 'The Debt' is a superbly crafted espionage thriller packed with Israeli-Nazi score settling." Sharkey has kudos for Chastain ("searing") and Mirren ("steely"), who play young and old versions of the same character, and for British director John Madden, who "has woven in a series of tightly coiled and excellently choreographed action sequences that are 'Bourne Identity' quality, making 'The Debt' as bloody as it is brainy."

A.O. Scott's review in the New York Times is less enthusiastic, calling the film "absorbing" but "sometimes improbable." Of Chastain and Mirren, he writes, "While the two Rachels don't quite seem to be the same person … they are both, in their different ways, captivating: Ms. Chastain for her expressiveness and Ms. Mirren for her stoicism." Scott laments that the film could have been something more, rather than "turning a tale full of sticky political implications and emotional undercurrents into a neat sequence of plot twists."

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times finds the key scenes of the agents' operation, told in flashback, to be the film's most compelling, thanks to skillful editing and camerawork. But, Ebert says, the film loses its way toward the end, and there is an underlying structural problem: "The younger versions of the characters have scenes that are intrinsically more exciting, but the actors playing the older versions are more interesting."

In the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips takes issue with the film's storytelling, saying that the way it strategically withholds information from the audience "feels a little cheap." He goes on to write that although the cast is capable, " 'The Debt' strains to find the right mixture of Holocaust revenge melodrama and moral reckoning," and that "Madden vacillates between treating the issues and historical context of 'The Debt' seriously, and as the story demands, as pure, heavy-handed pulp."

Ty Burr of the Boston Globe also deems the film pulpy, likening it to an airport paperback (albeit a good one). Burr writes, " 'The Debt' acts like it's about weighty historical matters, but it's a genre drama at heart, and at its most profound (which is not very) it ponders the lies we commit to and live with in the name of national honor."

In both date and DNA, "The Debt" seems to fall somewhere between the popcorn flicks of summer and the highbrow fare of the impending awards season.


Helen Mirren plus Jessica Chastain equals one Nazi hunter

Photos: 'The Debt' premiere

Jessica Chastain discusses 'The Help'

--Oliver Gettell

Photo: Helen Mirren in "The Debt." Credit: Laurie Sparham/ Focus Features

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