Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Recasting 2011: "The Debt"

In the summer of 2010, Disney announced its sale of Miramax to Filmyard Holdings. One of the films that ended up getting its release date postponed was John Madden's spy thriller, The Debt. Big names like Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson, and then up and coming box-office star from Avatar, Sam Worthington, all teaming up with an Academy Award-winning director (Shakespeare in Love) made for a lineup that created early Oscar buzz. Those predictions never came to fruition, however, likely in large part due to the delayed nature of the film's release, and not because of the film's quality. 

The project was a remake of the Israeli film, Ha-Hov. Helen Mirren plays a retired Mossad agent in Tel Aviv, Rachel Singer, who, along with her two co-agents from thirty years prior, has been harboring a secret about their mission to capture a Nazi war criminal. They had indeed captured the man, but he escaped, and rather than face their government, they fabricate a story about the man's death. Well, turns out the man lived, and a journalist claims he's going to interview him. Rachel is now consigned to find the Nazi in a Ukrainian hospital and finally bring him back to Israel.


That was a very abbreviated snapshot of the film's plot, but it's tedious going into too much detail about it. Suffice it to say, it's totally worth watching, and it would be a fascinating character for Meryl to portray. For starters, y'all know I'm a sucker for hearing new accents. Meryl would get to try her hand at what I understand to be an Israeli accent, or more specifically, a Hebrew or Modern Hebrew accent. The character also speaks some subtitled scenes in Russian as well, so that would be fun. And considering Meryl's skill for Polish, I suspect she'd similarly had nailed this fellow Slavic language. 

Aside from Rachel being a badass intelligence agent, the more nuanced character points come from the struggle with recalling the events in 1965, and how she's had to live for decades with a lie that has repercussions on a global scale. This brings us to the fact that a good chunk of the movie takes place in the past, with a different cast portraying the younger versions of the characters in Germany. The scenes are wonderfully acted and exciting, but the casting makes the film far more difficult to follow than it needed to be. I've read a few reviews that share the same concerns about poor physical resemblances among the two sets of casts. While I'm not a stickler for perfect matches on features, I don't like getting taken out of the film by distractions or questions like "which one is he supposed to be?" 

It's easy with Rachel, as Jessica Chastain (before she was a star) portrayed the younger counterpart. She and Mirren don't exactly resemble each other, and neither do she and Streep, particularly. The bigger issue is with the guys, however. Sam Worthington (David) looks NOTHING like UK actor Ciarán Hinds, and Martin Csokas and Tom Wilkinson are a rough match as well. The storyline isn't super difficult to follow, but there's a fair amount of jumping back and forth in different time periods, and when there's a switch in casts, it can be a bit tricky to follow. 

Of course, I have thoughts on how to remedy the above issues. I can't help but think that Andrea Riseborough would've been a perfect match had Meryl been cast as the "1997" Rachel. She was originally cast as Meryl's daughter in August: Osage County before scheduling conflicts brought in Juliette Lewis. It's a more believable extension of Rachel from her late twenties to her late fifties.

And what about Out of Africa alum Klaus Maria Brandauer for the 1997 version of Sam Worthington's character, David?

And as much as I enjoy Tom Wilkinson, I feel like Ciarán Hinds, who originally portrayed the older version of David, might have fared better as Stefan:

I think these casting adjustments would've made for a more coherent storyline. We don't need such confusions from the plot or from the superb acting. And Rachel would be an interesting person to tackle. I wonder if Meryl would've had a conversation with the actor playing the younger "her." The two characters are no doubt different people form each other. After all the trauma young Rachel goes through, and then the years of possible shame for both having kept her secret and the fear that she and her colleagues will be found out. But then there's that chance at redemption--not only for herself, but for her fellow agents, country, and the Jewish people. Lots for an actor to do here, and Mirren eats it up as one would expect. 

The film did fairly well with critics, with a 77% on Rotten Tomatoes. But it got sort of lost in the shuffle I think, with the aforementioned delays it had prior to its official release. I also realize that some people might not consider the 1997 version of Rachel a lead part, because a good portion of the movie takes place with the younger trio in 1965. But I argue that had Meryl been involved, it would've been like a Julie & Julia situation, with Meryl going lead. Mirren, after all, did receive top billing. Streep would've been an even bigger draw. 


  1. This is a movie I always intended to see but never got around to, now I must!

    I always liked that Dame Helen was willing to take on a range of roles and film types.

    For 2012 I am going to say the lead critically acclaimed movie Zero Dark Thirty. Why in hell should the lead CIA analyst not be a woman of Meryl's age?!

  2. Amour and 45 years are the kind of movies I wish Meryl could make. Speaking of elder people in sickness, have you seen the Father? Some of the scenes between Anthony and Olivia reminded me so much of Meryl and Olivia in the Iron Lady. Meryl is superb as an old lady fighting dementia.

  3. 'The Debt' is a very interesting example of how flashbacks can compete with a main plot. As you mentioned Jeff, the storyline fronted by Helen Mirren is almost secondary by the time it really gets underway. It's like the money men didn't want a bunch of 'oldies' in this film, so they crowded the cast with young 'uns. Bah!

    With a pivotal flashback or three, yes, Streep, Hinds and Brandauer would have nailed this film.