Sunday, September 4, 2011

John Madden: The Truth Will Set You Free (The Debt)

Helen Mirren, The Debt, Focus Features, 2011.

The honest to God truth of the power inherent in historical melodrama is laid bare in John Madden's lucid, stimulating new film, The Debt. A remake of an Israeli film little seen stateside, the film has been given the full Miramax treatment, down to the regal Helen Mirren and John Madden as director.

The picture opens spectacularly, drawing us into its interplay between the past and present, and ultimately the truth and the lie. A trio of Mossad agents infiltrate 1965 East Berlin to capture an infamous Nazi surgeon inspired bt Joseph Mengele, to return him to the homeland for trial. But nothing goes smoothly, of course, as the two very different men (Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) become enamored of the one woman (Jessica Chastain),  the dynamic becomes highly sexualized and endangers the larger task at hand. In the present, the trio are feted at a book launch about their exploits. In these segments they are portrayed by Ciaran Hinds, Tom Wilkinson and Helen Mirren.

Most everything is done just right in this film, and yet many key things are awry. The structure and its invitation to the audience to think is ingratiating, as are the look and performances. Moral questions of its representations of crucial history, and more importantly, its exploitation of said elements, are more debatable. Although it hits a few snags, ultimately Madden triumphs with one of his most stylistically interesting films.

Madden is a great director who often gets lost in the modern cinema rubble. Best known for helming the good but overrated 90s Oscar winner Shakespeare in Love, he also helmed some of the most thought provoking costume dramas and literary adaptations of the past twenty years (Ethan Frome, Mrs. Brown, Proof and Killshot). With this remake, he only confirms his status as a neglected visionary.

Another underrated visionary, Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Stardust, X-Men: First Class) has done a top notch job producing and co-writing the near seamless script. Ben Davis' cinematography goes a long way to contributing visually through a separation of the hallowed past and the harsh present. Thomas Newman's progressive, dynamic score proves once again his gift as one of America's greatest film composers.

As for the cast, they are all superb in their own rights. Csokas stands out in the past segments, his steely countenance and virility masking a weakness he communicates strongly. Worthington's gentle earnestness is deeply felt, and Chastain finds her conflicted character's heart brilliantly. It's been a grand year for Chastain. She co-starred in the year's most artistically important film, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, and then in one of this year's most grossly overrated and condescending ones, The Help. Here she falls somewhere nicely in between.

Mirren's driven grace steals the present scenes. She's not the cinema's grand dame for nothing. Yet she is matched by the haunted countenance of the great Hinds and the hypocritical expostulations of the inestimable Wilkinson. Jesper Christensen is especially creepy and affecting as the "evil" Dr. Vogel.

Despite a third act denoument which is as puzzling as it is achingly cliched, Madden's picture achieves what it sets out to do. Namely, dramatize a segment of Holocaust/Cold War history with romantic trimmings, forming it all into a cohesive entity, replete with themes of guilt, revenge, regret and truth. For the most part, the truth herein does set us free.

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