Let me start off by saying I did not watch this film under the most ideal circumstances. I foolishly came into the film making an assumption on an important aspect of the film. When my assumption was proved wrong in the middle of the film, all of my complaints about the film up to that point became invalid. Despite this there are still some clear pacing issues with this film. The film deals with two storylines, one in 1966 and the other in 1997. The film spends an immense amount of time in the 1966. So much so that with the 1997 timeline in the film as well, the film feels overloaded. By the time we are reintroduced to the 1997 story (it acts as a bookend to the 1966 storyline), much of the momentum and suspense the film achieved up to that point is killed. My conundrum is that the entire storyline was necessary. If the 1997 storyline never existed, all originality from this film would be gone. It would just be a boring thriller. If the 1966 storyline was shortened, we would not have had the developed characters which would have once again led to a boring thriller. This all leads to the question of whether this film should have been made at all. Considering this is a remake, I just don't think it should have.
All of these complaints aren't to say that John Madden and screenwriters Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) did a poor job with this film. That couldn't be further from the truth. Madden probably does his best directorial job yet. He has gotten over the years a reputation as being a "safe" director. Here he actually makes some interesting stylistic choices. The best example of this is in a breakout scene during the 1966 storyline. He also creates an immense amount of intensity in the 66 storyline by focusing on the realistic atmosphere and claustrophobic setting (the production design crew does some brilliant yet understated work). The script also deserves a lot of credit for developing three distinct and realistic characters. Any problems with the characters have to be completely attributed to the casting and (in the case of Sam Worthington's character) acting.
Speaking of casting, it is horrendous. Besides some perfect casting in Helen Mirren (who is able to convey a long range of emotions expertly in a short amount of screen time) and Jessica Chastain (who is continuing one of the biggest breakout years for an actor in recent memory and has her most physical and intense role yet), nothing else is done right. Unfortunately, casting is crucial to a film that focuses on 3 characters in two timelines separates by 30 years. Despite playing the same character, Sam Worthington and Cirian Hands (who does all he can in a cameo role) look nothing alike. The same is true with Marton Csokas (who is good but not memorable as an aggressive agent) and Tom Wilkinson (who stands out despite spending most of his time doing exposition). Luckily, when it came to casting outside of the lead roles, the film nailed it. This is especially true with the casting of the main villain. Instead of going for a "name" actor (who probably would have hammed it up), the film casted Jesper Christiensen. This move makes the audience face the unknown, like the characters in the film were facing. Christiensen does wonders with it as he creates a character almost as good as (and in the vain of) Heath Ledger's The Joker and Christoph Waltz's (who Christiensen co-starred with in Inglourious Basterds) Hans Landa. You just never know what's going on in his head or what trick he is going to pull out of the bag next.
The Debt is a film that on a structural level does not work. However, it does so much right that I liked it more than I didn't.