Miramax Films originally scheduled to open "The Debt" in December 2010, just in time for awards season, but when the studio went all but belly-up they had to find another company to acquire and distribute the film. Focus Features came to the rescue, and the picture is now finally arriving just in time for the dog days of summer. August 31 isn't the most hopeful of release dates, but it's just as well that Focus didn't try to position it deeper into the fall. A remake of a 2007 Israeli film of the same name, "The Debt" is a lukewarm thriller without the depth, impact or meaning one expects from an Oscar contender. Director John Madden (2005's "Proof
") has a talented cast to work with, but the screenplay by Peter Straughan (2008's "How to Lose Friends & Alienate People
") and Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman (2011's "X-Men: First Class
") only blesses them with what naggingly feels like the vague outline of a movie, rather than the final shot and edited version.
For over thirty years, former Mossad agents Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) and David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds) have been celebrated heroes for their alleged accomplishments during a 1965 mission to capture sadistic Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) in East Berlin. In 1997, Rachel's and Stephan's grown daughter Sarah (Romi Aboulafia) has published a book about this very subject, rustling up dark, long-hidden secrets and inciting guilt amongst them. They were never completely honest about what actually became of Vogel, you see, and now the decades-long pact between them is but a catalyst for the tragic events that have been a long time coming.
For a time-spanning drama focusing on post-Holocaust Germany and a person's irreparable sins of the past, "The Debt" has little of the weight and thoughtfulness of 2008's far superior "The Reader
." Here, the serious subject matter is not used for enlightenment of any kind, but as an excuse to build a few shallow mysteries and thrills around it. As the younger versions of Rachel, Stephan and David, Jessica Chastain (2011's "The Tree of Life
"), Sam Worthington (2010's "The Clash of the Titans
") and Marton Csokas (2010's "Alice in Wonderland
") are accurately cast and, at least in the case of Chastain, astutely performed to the point where the actress disappears into her character. The script isn't worth the effort, unfortunately, leaving her, uncanny elder counterpart Helen Mirren (2011's "Brighton Rock
"), and a tastily despicable Jesper Christensen (2008's "Quantum of Solace
") as the cutthroat Dieter Vogel strong but oddly wasted. By not delving deeply enough into what this trio of agents must psychologically go through based on the deceptive choices they've made, director John Madden never escapes the shallow, decidedly inconsequential end of the pool. Weeks after seeing "The Debt," a viewer should not be surprised to find that he or she has all but forgotten the film in question.