“The Debt” and “Sarah’s Key” explore past and present horrors of the Holocaust

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

“The Debt,” a moral debate wrapped inside a thriller, doesn’t actually open in Atlanta until next Wednesday, August 31.

And Helen Mirren, despite ads to the contrary, doesn’t actually star in “The Debt.”

But she is featured, heavily — heavily enough, I hope, for a best supporting actress nomination.

Much like the current “Sarah’s Key,” “The Debt” owes a dramatic debt to the horror of the Holocaust. And, like that film, it splits its time between the “present” and the past.

But the two films couldn’t be more different in tone or intent. One is about uncovering the past; the other is about whether the past should keep its secrets. One counts mostly on emotional heft; the other on an ethical conundrum.

In 1997 (the present, for all intents and purposes), Rachel ( Mirren) is reunited with Stephan (Tom Wilkinson), her ex-husband, and David (Ciaran Hinds), an old colleague, to celebrate the publication of her daughter’s book.

The subject: their heroic exploits almost 30 years earlier when, as a trio of young Mossad agents, they were chosen to ferret out a fugitive Nazi war criminal (Jesper Christensen, hideously effective).

Played respectively by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington, they sneak into East Berlin to snare the monster in his own lair. But he is no easy catch; after all, this is someone who conducted unspeakable experiments inside concentration camps. An example: blinding children while trying to determine if brown eyes could be turned blue.

He is to be taken alive and returned to Israel for a public trial. But there’s a reason old monsters don’t die (they just fade away) and Christensen proves a difficult quarry.

Meanwhile, in 1997, the now-elderly three have to come to terms with something that happened long ago, but refuses to disappear. Much, you might say, like Christensen’s horrific past.

Mirren’s considerable reputation and star-power are probably what got the picture made, but the fourth-act denoument she dominates doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the film.

No matter. Whenever Mirren is around, everyone benefits. Besides, the extra inning (so to speak) reminds us that no one looks more forbidding on screen than Helen Mirren when she’s unhappy.


SEE THIS: “Sarah’s Key.” An emotionally wrenching story of survival and remembrance of things past.

AND THIS: “Our Idiot Brother.” Not necessarily for itself, but for Paul Rudd’s fabulous turn as a kind of Lebowski Lite (as in Jeff Bridges and “The Big Lebowski”).

NOT THIS: “The Future.” Writer/director/star Miranda July isn’t nearly as adorable as she apparently thinks she is. A tale of two slackers slack-jawed by any hint of what to do once they get off their couch, the film offers a few whimsical moments that work, but it’s mostly a dog chasing its own tail (tale?).

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

1 reply
  1. SpaceyG on Twitter says:

    Ah, was just inquiring on my FB Wall if any pals had seen this yet. All want to, but no one had yet. Maybe this weekend if they can tear themselves away from the DBF. But anything with Tom Wilkinson AND Helen Mirren is required viewing… with my very media/arts-savvy FB set anyway.

    We really should be able to sell our own ad space on our own FB Wall. But I diverge…Report


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