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Time Doesn't Pay

The Debt (2010)

Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

You know the awards season is officially upon us when Focus Features teams up with zombie Miramax to bring us the new film from an Oscar-nominated director that touts Oscar-pedigree British thespians playing second fiddle to up-and-comers who are supposedly their younger selves yet look nothing like them. To top it off, the movie also invokes the Holocaust. It’s so golden, it’s as if Harvey Weinstein had put it together himself. (He didn’t.)

Based on Assaf Berstein’s 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov,” John Madden’s “The Debt” is the fictional account of three Mossad agents who become national heroes after bringing to justice the Dr. Mengele-esque Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), dubbed the surgeon of Birkenau. The narrative shuttles between 1997 Tel Aviv, where the agents are played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds, and 1966 Berlin, where Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington respectively fill the same roles. It’s impressive how people can lose their cleft chins with age.

The most significant difference between the original and the remake happens to be the biggest problem as well: Screenwriters Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan have decided to withhold a few key details for a climactic twist, a decision that effectively delays much of the action until the final act. By doing so, they’ve also sacrificed the original’s moral ambiguity in favor of cheap thrills. It’s unfortunate when filmmakers summon up the horrors of the Holocaust and then take the human cost entirely out of the equation. How can the film convincingly preach via Ms. Mirren’s voice-over that truth is more valuable than justice while her character is exacting vengeance on screen?


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