Augut 31, 2011 | 114 minutes
After the 2007 Israeli feature film Ha-Hov, producer Eitan Evan, credits the film’s having been sold for distribution to countries beyond Israel to “its original story, combined with the thriller plot about Mossad agents on a mission. Mossad is an institution, one of the best in the world for espionage and intelligence, and the film had an authenticity to it with regard to them.” About six months later, Evan and co-producers Kris Thykier and Matthew Vaughn presented the script to Oscar-nominated director John Madden. “I hadn’t seen the Israeli film when I read the script. I felt I needed to watch it – and I’m glad I did, but then I didn’t look at it again.” Madden knew that the cast “would be central to The Debt. Inevitably these characters would be close to us, often very close. We watch them making a choice, see it ripple through a lifetime, and witness its profound effects.” Nowhere was this more important than with the lead character of Rachel Singer. The filmmakers needed an actress of a certain age to embody Rachel in 1997. She would have to be someone capable of conveying the uncertainty that haunts her, and embracing the physical challenges. With those prerequisites, Thykier states, “Who else could it be but Helen Mirren? We’d always thought of her for this role.” Madden had previously directed Mirren in one of her celebrated Prime Suspect telefilms. He notes, “That was a fantastic experience for me. Helen is an actress at the top of her game, and she likes to test herself. She is fearless. Helen responded immediately to the challenge of this material. “Here’s a role which required her to intimate the wounds and the corrosive effect of events suppressed over 30 years. The tension and pain of a decision made long ago are evident; she literally bears a scar from what happened back then. All this has to come across amidst the pace and excitement of a thriller.”
Aside from wanting to work with John again and the fact that this was a good thriller story, I was interested in exploring the notion of how every action you take in life has a result, a consequence, and sooner or later you are going to have to face up to it. Having learned to live with compromise, Rachel is finally realizing that it doesn’t always work. She is not a person who reveals much to anyone, not even to the daughter who has written a book abou her and her colleagues. Rachel has buried her true emotions and has existed for many years on a superficial level, not confronting the depth of her real feelings about things. She finds she has to do that, and much more. (Helen Mirren, Production Notes)
For that “much more,” Mirren rose to the occasion, learning the basic moves of krav maga, the renowned tactical defense skill that is rooted in hand-to-hand combat. Krav maga is the official self-defense system of the Israeli Defense Forces. However, Mirren points out that “at this point in her life, Rachel is retired and hasn’t fought in some years, so I wanted to keep that realistic. While she was trained in krav maga, that was a long time ago. So when she is called upon to defend herself again, she’s far from a credible fighter.” With their latter-day Rachel set, the filmmakers turned to casting the younger incarnation. Madden wanted to “not to be enslaved by the necessity to find a lookalike actress. “But then we did find the perfect actress, who has an extraordinary physical affinity with Helen.” Rising star Jessica Chastain was recommended to Madden “by an agent I trust, someone who didn’t even represent her.” Chastain had recently filmed for director Terrence Malick, who when phoned by Madden offered an overwhelmingly positive recommendation. “He was happy to talk forever about her,” Madden says. Chastain remarks, “When I first read the script, I didn’t even see it as a thriller. To me, it was a drama and a love story. It was so good that I felt, ‘I have to be in this movie.’ “I wanted to work with John Madden because he works both in theater and film, and that’s what I like to do as well.” The actress reveals, “I do a lot of research, and I went into my first meeting with John very prepared. I had found out that Helen Mirren and I are the same height, so I said, ‘Just to throw it out there…’” Chastain notes, “Helen asked me about what I thought Rachel’s family history might be, and we talked about where perhaps Rachel would end up; it’s in the script, of course, but this way we could see that we were on the same journey.”
Following two weeks of intense rehearsals, principal photography commenced in chronological order – with the safe house scenes filmed over three weeks – so that the actors could maintain the momentum from the rehearsals and better play out the festering tension between captors and captive. Six weeks later, cast and crew decamped to Tel Aviv, having been accepted as one of the few international productions to film in Israel in recent years. Locations in Israel included the scenic, Mediterranean-lit Dan Acadia Hotel, in Herzeliya on the Sea, where the book launch and other sequences were filmed, and where cast and crew and production offices were headquartered; and Lod’s Ben Gurion International Airport. Mirren says, “In Tel Aviv, history and modernity co-exist. It’s an extraordinary city in a fascinating country.” The production then returned to Budapest, which this time doubled for the Ukraine; pivotal scenes were shot at Lipot, an imposing and eerie hospital building just outside Budapest. John Madden concludes, “This is a thriller that keeps tightening the knot, with a sense that panic is just barely being held at bay. “The film’s title has multiple layers: historical, political and personal. The Debt asks questions that we face daily; ‘What would I have done in this situation?’ ‘How would I have behaved in those circumstances?’ ‘What is the price I would – or will – pay?’”
After its world-premiere Tat the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival in September 2010, Miramax originally announced plans to release the film in the United States on December 29, 2010, which led to an early Oscar buzz. However, the film was among Miramax’ projects that had their official opening dates delayed until 2011 as a result of a “transaction between Miramax owner Disney and soon-to-be new owners Colony Capital. “The Debt” released US theaters on August 31, 2011 to generally positive reviews, espcially for its cast. The Los Angeles Times called it the “most under-appreciated film of 2011. The breakout star of the year, Jessica Chastain won a slew of cricits awards for her performance in this film, alongside The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Help and Coriolanus.
I haven’t seen the original “Ha-Hov”, so I can’t tell if “The Debt” does the original film justice. But I can say it’s one of my favorite films of the last years. The story jumps between Berlin in 1965 and Israel in 1997 and does a great job at revealing secrets bit by bit that make us slowly aware how these people have spent their lives and what consequences their actions have brought. All thrill and action beside, “The Debt” is an ensemle film (actually, two ensemble films). While the man stay a bit in the background (in terms of multi-layered characters), the central role of Rachel is played equally brilliant by Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren. It’s unfortunate that this film has remained little-seen upon its release, because I think it’s one of Helen’s best performances in recent years. There’s not one false move in her performance, which ends in a shocking climax that leaves you at the edge of your seat. “The Debt” is a perfectly fine example that Helen Mirren, after all the years, is still fearless in choosing her roles. Very recommended.
Awards and Nominations for Helen Mirren
★ Alliance of Women Film Journalists – Actress Defying Age and Ageism
★ AARP Movies for Grownups Award – Best Actress