Late August/early September is known as a dumping ground for Hollywood a block of weekends for movies that don't fit into studios' strategical timeline. This could be for quality reasons ("when else are we going to put out this crappy movie?") or in the case of The Debt the movie might be too straightforward for its own good.
Oscar-winning director John Madden's (Shakespeare in Love) espionage thriller walks the fine line between action entertainment and award-season bait—leaving it in the unmarketable limbo known as "solid adult entertainment." The film a remake of a 2007 Israeli drama of the same name starts in 1997 centering on former-Mossad agent Rachel (Helen Mirren) and her two former teammates David (Ciaran Hinds) and Rachel's ex-husband Stephan (Tom Wilkinson). The trio cross paths once again with the publishing of a book written by Rachel and Stephen's daughter recounting the team's daring (and semi-successful) mission to kidnap and incarcerate a Nazi war criminal in 1965. It's with this solidifying of fame that the true events of their mission begin to trickle out.
The movie quickly flashes back to 1965 picking up with Rachel David and Stephen (now played by rising starlett Jessica Chastain Avatar's Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) at the start of their mission. Like any group of gorgeous people forced to live in confined spaces romance begins to blossom with Rachel warming to the introverted David and Stephen waiting for the opportune moment to sweep her off her feet. While the trio prepares for the kidnapping—with your standard array of sleuthing calculated scheduling and intel-gathering—their relationships complicate giving The Debt a bit more depth than your run-of-the-mill Mission: Impossible-style spy movie. When it comes time to bag the Nazi everything seems to have fallen into place.
But unlike the stories told by their '90s counterparts the three agents find themselves in a stickier situation than expected. WIth one misstep the tension between the triangle boils and Madden to play games with our expectations. The script by Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman twists and turns bouncing back and forth between Mirren and Chastain's Rachel with ease. The spectacle in The Debt isn't delivered by elaborate set pieces but rather by the two actresses' performances. The duo without sharing a single scene click and unfold a complete arc beginning with Rachel's pride-filled aspirations to her chaotic downfall to Mirren's newfound mission to cover up the truth. Even when the movie dawdles (and it does around the hour mark) Mirren and Chastain keep us on board.
The other members of the ensemble don't have too much meat to chew on but Worthington impresses nonetheless tackling a character that's a complete 180 from his usual action-oriented muscle roles. His young David gives weight to the mission inhabiting a sense of devotion that explodes when he finally engages their Nazi hostage in a battle of words. Csoaks as young Stephen is just the slick realist prick the movie needs to make the team's downfall frighteningly disastrous and in turn the events of the present that much more dire.
The Debt doesn't have the expansive harrowing scope of Steven Spielberg's serious spy movie Munich but for a movie that doesn't really have a place on the Hollywood slate it delivers a square serving of drama and sharp performances. It tells its story and does so with the right amount of flair.
At the end of the summer that's a welcome surprise.
Comte Donatien Alphonse François de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) the legendary
French libertine and writer of dirty stories who lent his name to the term
"sadism " goofs away the last decadent years of his life in an insane
asylum. But the black-market publication of his latest porno masterpiece
upsets the unorthodox arrangements he has with a mischievous chambermaid
(Kate Winslet) and the open-minded priest who administers the facility
(Joaquin Phoenix). Soon a harsh new supervisor (Michael Caine) arrives with
orders to break the unrepentant Marquis.
While he bears little physical resemblance to the historical de Sade -- a
350-pound 64-year-old at the time of his death in 1814 -- Rush ("Shine")
nails the combustible mixture of monster and intellectual rebel that makes
the character such a fascinating counterculture icon. Meanwhile "Titanic"
leading lady Winslet has almost too much sultry star presence for what is
little more than an overglorified henchwoman part. The talented Phoenix
("Gladiator") has much more to work with as a young priest caught in an
increasingly painful moral dilemma.
Philip Kaufman who previously indulged in raunchy literary biography with
1990's "Henry and June " digs into substantial issues about free speech and
the incendiary power of ideas in a piece that plays like "Amadeus" meets
"The People vs. Larry Flynt." Kaufman and screenwriter Doug Wright (adapting
his own stage play) mean to wash all this down with as much lurid teen sex
necrophilia and S&M as they can cram into an art film but there's something
a little too earnestly deliberate about their attempts to be crude and
salacious. Their Marquis is an entertaining enough fellow but he starts to
wear out his welcome as this highbrow tour of hell plods through its
somewhat tedious second hour.
Julie Walters shines as Bernie McPhelimy a working-class mother of four who is sick to death of living on the front lines. In curlers and a housecoat she chews out a gunman shooting from her welcome mat as if he were a naughty child. But it isn't until her best friend is shot dead while looking after one of Bernie's kids that she turns from Valium to activism. Daring to criticize the IRA as well as the British army Bernie becomes the town pariah though her gumption turns her into an unlikely celebrity. Ostracized and bullied by their friends her kids -- especially adolescent Ann who just wants to keep her new boyfriend -- resent her and suspect all this fame is going to her head.
In her best film role since "Educating Rita " Julie Walters shows she still has a surplus of piss and vinegar. Her Bernie also displays a sardonic (if exhausted) wit and an all-too-human ego as her fame spreads. While Ciaran Hinds is effective as the ulcer-addled apprehensive husband and Nuala O'Neill gives an appropriately mopey angst-ridden performance as Ann vibrant supporting performances by the townspeople really bring soul and humor to this film.
Quite different from his last film the glossy fluffy "Notting Hill " Rodger Michell's "Titanic Town" is a small indie with many fine miniature moments such as Bernie's preoccupation with the dust bunnies under the bed as British soldiers forcibly search her home. With a spate of IRA films preceding it Michell's is the only one to really show "The Troubles" through a mother's eyes.