Cambridge Film Festival Review: The Debt

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The Pitch: Some debts take longer to pay off than others.

The Review: Sam Worthington could very well be the Kevin Costner of his generation. Kevin had a knack for the dramatic equivalent of being the straight man in a comedy show, a stoic pivot at the centre of a film where those around him would do all the heavy lifting in the acting department. From JFK to The Untouchables, from Field Of Dreams to Robin Hood, Costner assembled a diverse body of work, most of which is excellent and most of which he’s doing less acting than his colleagues in. Worthington has already secured a number of lead roles, and has now been inexplicably cast in an ensemble drama where he’s required to act at the same level as both his contemporaries and some great actors of earlier generations.

I would love to say that Sam steps up and knocks it out of the park, but consider the acting talent he’s been recruited with. At the older end, you’ve got Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds portraying the Nineties versions of the lead trio, retired Mossad agents who achieved glory in their younger days. In the contemporary category, Martin Csokas and Jessica Chastain, with Chastain especially marked out for great things after her last lead role opposite Brad Pitt in The Tree Of Life. Against that kind of competition, Worthington never stood a chance, but if the film had used him to his best effect, rather than putting him through the harrowing experience of asking him to act (you can almost see the acting gears churning behind his concentrated face), then it need never have been a problem.

You see, there’s two competing films in here, and The Debt is never quite sure which one it wants to be. There’s the exploits of Worthington’s trio in Sixties Berlin, attempting to track down a Nazi war criminal (the excellent Jesper Christensen) and to bring him to justice, and the human drama of their conflict both in the Sixties and in the Nineties. Scenes between Chastain and Christensen are excellent, and the drama is exploited for all of its meaty possibilities; the thriller elements, involving the capture and fate of the team’s quarry, are also tense and keep the attention throughout. It’s just the use of personnel at certain points that allows the film to flag a little, which isn’t the fault of the actors but could have been remedied either by writers Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughn or by director John Madden with a little more care.

The other failing of the film also has to be placed with writers and director. While I’ve never attempted to act myself, I did once study the piano, and my teacher told me that if I looked after the start and end of the piece, the middle would take care if itself. If only Madden and co had been able to heed this advice; the start is flabby, and consists of over twenty minutes of flashbacks and forwards and sideways glances and the characters not stating their true purpose, all of which mean that The Debt takes much longer than it should to gain momentum. The ending is also problematic, not least when a film that recasts its core roles between generations suddenly has one actor turn up in very poor old age make-up, and also when the final twists and turns descend into silliness and stifle the dramatic resolution. The Debt has brilliant parts, but is less satisfying as a whole and someone needs to work out quickly how to use Sam Worthington – for both his sake and ours.

Why see it at the cinema: If you can get past the choppiness of the opening then there’s a large chunk of a good film here, and seeing it in a cinema will fully allow the tension to grab you and draw you in. On the way out, you can see how many people kept a straight face all the way to the end…

The Score: 7/10

Review: Lebanon

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The Pitch: Tanks for the memories.

The Review: First off, an apology for that pitch, not really for the awful pun (something I’m a big fan of), but because Lebanon is based on the personal experiences of its first time writer / director Samuel Maoz, and it does feel wrong to in any way demean that experience, especially when it’s portrayed on screen so effectively. The war movie is an extensive genre, and consequently it becomes harder and harder to mine an original vein, so anyone can only hope that any comparisons are favourable.

And the two most obvious here are Das Boot, which covered similar claustrophobia in a confined space, and Waltz With Bashir, the most prominent example of the Lebanon wars being portrayed on screen up to now.  Lebanon does stand comparison to either of these, although isn’t quite as good as either. What is common in war movies, and what is most noticeably missing here, is the sense of a central character who provides a strong moral core – all of the four main characters in the tank have flaws in abundance, and there’s a strong feeling that none of them would choose to be in this situation.

The film is almost entirely shot from inside the tank, so the only times we see or hear outside are through the viewfinder of the gunner or on the radio, which serves to ramp up the tension as events take place just out of range or earshot. While the tank moves through events, a series of other passengers on the tank each serve their own purpose to increase the risk faced by the participants.

Overall there are occasional moments of humour and bonding, but since we never truly engage with any of the characters (except when it’s really too late), the movie doesn’t quite have the emotional heft of its counterparts. But while the whole falls short of true greatness, there are a couple of moments of inspiration, most notably when the tank comes under direct attack. Worth the ride for those moments alone.

Why see it at the cinema: The big screen fully allows the confined space of the tank to be contrasted with the world outside, and for the times when attacks come, each is truly impressive and engaging.

The Score: 8/10

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