The Debt—movie review

Sometimes a film seems to have everything going for it and still comes up short; such is the case with The Debt. Its credentials are impeccable: a fine cast headed by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Jessica Chastain, just for starters, directed by John Madden, and written by three talented Brits, Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan.

This is a retread of an Israeli film, Ha-Hov, so presumably the English-language team had a solid blueprint to follow. Yet, as we’ve seen time and time again, the strength of —

—the source material has little bearing on the outcome of a remake.

The story has the makings of a first-rate thriller, laced with moral complexity: three Mossad agents (Chastain, Sam Worthington, and Martin Csokas) converge in East Berlin in the mid 1960s to capture a Nazi doctor who performed unspeakable experiments on Jewish victims during World War Two. Their mission: abduct him and bring him back to Israel so he can stand trial. It won’t be easy. Indeed, what takes place affects their lives for the next thirty years. (The story is told in flashback, with Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds playing the characters in the late 1990s.)

The Debt has occasional moments of suspense, but the human element of the story—including a romantic rivalry—plays out in clunky, heavy-handed fashion. By the time we get to the modern-day climax it’s hard to care or even take it seriously, despite a few last-minute surprises.

None of this is the fault of the actors, who do excellent work, especially Chastain, who’s been impressive in The Tree of Life and The Help this year, and Mirren, who handles a difficult role with skill and aplomb. But, sorry to say, The Debt is a misfire.


  1. moshe smith says:

    The review was right on the money. It didn’t work. Watch “Munich!”. Great film.
    What happened? With so many people acting, they couldn’t get look alikes for when they grew older?It was sad, the women who played Rachel looked nothing like Helen Mirren. Again, Stephen’s character looked nothing like the older Stephen.
    The writing was very confused. The movie seemed like it was put together by people with no experience. It was a total loss.
    Moshe in Berlin, Germany

  2. ghm says:

    I think David the younger looked more like Tom Wilkinson as David the older…and Stephan the younger looked more like Ciaran Hinds as Stephan the older…I was very distracted by this, there is no way the aging of these actors is even a close match! A real drawback!

  3. TeriKarma says:

    Just watched the original foreign film ‘The Debt’ – absolutely fantastic – it’s free on demand – why watch the remake unless you absolutely hate to read sub-titles. The original is great. After watching the American made trailer – the foreign The Debt at least got the actors to look very similar when aging the 30 years later. From the trailer of this one – looks like they fell a bit short in finding realistic look alikes for the aging. The only reason I might go and see this one is Cirian Hinds who has very little mention in the US reviews. A shame – he deserves a lot more recognition.

  4. Patrick M. Gouin says:

    Finally an intelligent thriller for adults. A well stitched story brought to life by top talent actors. Helen Mirren et Jessica Chastain are particularly marvellous. Not a dull moment. Very well done.

  5. Fran says:

    Am I the only one who felt Israel’s and Mossad’s credibility being undermined with this “fiction”? How interesting and disturbing to have a film cast doubt on Mossad’s track record for the capture and punishment of Nazi war criminals. And cunningly subliminal to cast this doubt at this time in modern history, when Israel is literally being threatened by the Arab world and cast in the role of villain by a deceived and manipulated international audience. The anti Israeli flavor is disturbingly reminiscent of the early anti-semetic themes presented in Europe in the decade before WWII and the Holocaust.

    No fault of the actors. Their performances were superb. There was no lack of suspense or plot development either.

    Just the unsettling feeling of an underlying political agenda.

  6. Lynne Halevi says:

    Honolulu Jewish Film Festival showed the Israeli version a couple of years ago. I found the original more dark and more filled with tension that this remake. Even though the actors in the remake were excellent, something was lost in the translation.

  7. Lord Vader says:

    Well, in any event, it may at least encourage people to learn more about the Second World War other than what’s been indoctrinated in school. Furthermore, I would like to see a film about what the Jewish displaced persons experienced from 45-47. For example, after the war, Dachau, although not in the hands of the SS, was still a place where Jews were housed (by the British), lest they try to get to Palestine illegally. Another? Many high-ranking Nazis were allowed to become international arms dealers well into the fifties and sixties. You won’t read about this in High School.

  8. Ellen says:

    I love the movie but have one question. Who was the younger man who comes to David’s door at the beginning of the movie and escorts him to a car?

  9. kit says:

    Give this film some credit! After a summer of 3-D losers, finally, a good plot with great performances. Having visited the Soviet side of the Berlin Wall and East Germany during the “dark years” of occupation, it brings back sad and scary
    memories. You can’t tell where the plot is going-instead of the typical Hollywood script.
    Don’t listen to the critics-see for yourself.

  10. Brett says:

    In 1976, a film with a somewhat similar plot, “Marathon Man”. This provocative thriller received well-deserved praise from critics. Leonard Maltin was one of the few to buck the trend and not give that film its due.

    Thirty-five years later, Maltin gets it wrong again, this time with “The Debt”.

  11. J says:

    I really liked this movie! There was a part in which it was kind of slow but it got good! I was at the edge of my seat in many parts of it. I liked the twists and turns as well. The one part I didn’t like was the two younger actors who played Stephan and David because at first I was confused of which older one they were playing!

    Rating: 4/5 for me.

  12. Allison says:

    I LOVED this movie. It’s so nice to see an intelligent thriller for adults after all the lame summer explosion movies. I personally would recommend it. One of the best movies of the year.

  13. Norm says:

    Well, if you like Jewish thrillers, there is always
    “I’ll Never Heil again ” or “You Nazty Spy.”
    I’m sure Moe,Larry and Curly will be just as entertaining.

  14. Just saw the Debt says:

    So disjointed and confusing,

  15. Jason says:

    That’s a shame. I was looking forward to seeing something with Sam Worthington in it. I’m glad Helen Mirren’s still giving great performances, even when the movie’s not as strong.

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