The difference between Assaf Bernstein’s 2007 film “The Debt” and the English-language remake that opens on Aug. 31 can be seen in the faces of the films’ respective female leads. In the Israeli original, Gila Almagor looks like a prosperous suburban matron, her face unlined except for an almost imperceptible scar on one cheek. By contrast, Helen Mirren sports an angry-looking L-shaped scar that draws her face taut, emphasizing the lined, almost craggy, and exhausted visage of someone with the weight of Jewish history on her shoulders.
Bernstein’s film, his first theatrical feature, is a tightly knit thriller that follows the parallel storylines of a 1960s mission by young Mossad agents hunting and finding a notorious Nazi war criminal, and their aged selves trying to undo the damage done by the failures of that mission. It is frequently silky smooth, a nicely crafted piece of work that derives some of its power from Almagor’s refreshingly subdued performance.
But John Madden’s remake is altogether darker, more densely textured, more satisfyingly structured, more morally complex. A lot of the credit for the greater success of the new version belongs to Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, who have taken the original screenplay (by Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum) and reshaped it in small but significant ways. The original begins with the publication of a memoir by Rachel (Almagor) in which she reaffirms the public version of their mission, ending with the apparent killing of their target, the “Surgeon of Birkenau.” Her old comrades are sadly reduced versions of themselves, Tzvi, a mean-spirited cynic in a wheelchair, Ehud a self-deluded drunk and womanizer.
The remake, by contrast, suggests continuing links between the trio, reinforcing and complicating their emotional states. Stephen (Tom Wilkinson as the Tzvi character) is Rachel’s ex-husband, and their daughter has written a book about their mission, providing the main motivation for Rachel allowing herself to be dragged into an attempt to clean up the mess three decades later. We see David (Ciaran Hinds as the Ehud character in what is little more than a cameo) shockingly commit suicide very early in the film, a particularly horrific piece of violence that darkens the already grim material. The writers have made subtle changes in the story’s chronology that both streamline and complicate the narrative in highly effective ways. And given a studio budget, Madden is able to add a couple of impressive action set pieces and a lot more visual and emotional texture, thanks in no small part to Jim Clay’s detailed production design.
The production design and script come together most effectively in the central passages of the film, with the three young Mossad agents stuck in a safe house together with the aging Nazi (Jesper Christensen). Where Bernstein’s war criminal is a rather bland, chilly cipher, Christensen is a cagey monster, and the newer script finds effective ways to keep his captors as penned-in as their prey. The seedy claustrophobia of the house itself renders the combustion that occurs an utterly comprehensible reality rather a merely acceptable plot device. (The moody blandness of the three young actors — Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas — actually helps make their failure more believable.)
Madden is a filmmaker whose work frequently centers on the private secrets behind public figures and events (“Shakespeare in Love,” “Mrs. Brown,” “Captain Correlli’s Mandolin”) and it’s a theme he handles much more adroitly here. The original ends on a receding image of a tragic death, putting the narrative focus entirely on Rachel. In contrast, Madden closes by dissolving from a final moment of brutality to the opening image of the three young heroes visually overwhelmed by the blinding glare of the sun, light so bright that it obliterates the truth. The result is that rarity of cinematic rarities, a cross-cultural remake that works better than the original and, as such, a very pleasant surprise indeed.
“The Debt” opens on Wednesday, Aug. 31 at neighborhood theaters. The original Israeli version will play at the JCC in Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue) on Tuesday, Sept. 20 at 7:30 p.m.