The Two Faces of Helen Mirren

Oscar-winner Helen Mirren is at the point in her career where she is an institution in the world of acting.  Actresses occupying this rarefied air (like Streep) generally will pick roles either for fun or to win awards (though they would never admit to that).  Whether doing it for fun or for serious posturing, Mirren’s name instantly adds a sense of class and gravitas to any film she stars in.  This past Labor Day weekend, movie-goers could see The Helen Mirren in two puzzling films, Brighton Rock and The Debt

Helen Mirren in BRIGHTON ROCK
Helen Mirren in THE DEBT

***POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD – Read With Caution***

First up is Brighton Rock.  Whether you view it as a remake of the 1947 quasi-classic (of which I wasn’t a big fan) or as a different adaptation of Graham Greene’s classic 1937 novel (which I loved and count among his best)…the film has no reason to exist, which isn’t to say it’s all that bad.  Director Rowan Joffe lays on the atmosphere thickly, and for the most part the film is engaging enough.  The seedy underbelly of England’s seaside resort town of Brighton is brought to life in grand fashion with nice production values, moody lighting and ominous waves crashing underneath the pier, though there is a rather oppressive music score to accompany it. 

The acting is fairly solid with Sam Riley making a Twilight-ish but menacing Pinkie (who, like Helen Mirren’s character in The Debt, picks up a nasty facial scar), though he pales in comparison to Richard Attenborough’s original turn.  Andrea Riseborough puts an interesting spin on the difficult to dissect character of Rose, playing her as something of a dim masochist.  As Ida Arnold, Helen Mirren appears in the film seemingly as a lark – hell, why wouldn’t she want to take on a role written by Graham Greene?  Although she’s not what I imagined Ida would look like when I read the book, Mirren possesses the talent to inhabit any role, and dolled-up as a former femme-fatale, she has fun with what little she is given. 

Despite the brooding atmosphere and the solid acting, the film suffers from two major and unforgivable flaws.  I have no clue as to why Joffe thought it was a good idea to update the story’s 1930’s setting to the 1960’s.  It serves to allow him to add an unconvincing backdrop of Britain’s youth riots and one too many silly scenes of punks riding mopeds.  It simply doesn’t work.  If one wanted to truly update the story, it would’ve been better to go whole-hog and do something truly creative like changing the setting to modern-day and switching Pinkie and Rose from Catholic to Muslim.  Instead of being a small-time hood, Pinkie could’ve been a small-time terrorist.  Lord knows if Graham Greene was alive today, he’d probably be fascinated with that whole scene. 

But even more annoying than the 1960’s setting is that Joffe’s film makes the same mistake as the 1947 film.  It totally botches Greene’s infamous closing coda (though the cliff-side finale is very well done).  Greene brilliantly left it to the mind of the reader to know that Rose was going to listen to the recording Pinkie left her and learn the cruel truth about the young man she thought she loved.  In Joffe’s film, a scratch in the record prevents Rose from hearing the full story and validates her delusion that Pinkie loved her.  Though Greene was often chided for his misanthropy, his original ending was actually kinder to Rose.  He left open room for her to know the truth about hate and free herself from the ties that bound her, while Joffe kept Rose’s heart and mind tethered to a lie about love.  Pick your poison, folks.

Which brings up to another film about lies, The Debt.  In the 1960’s, three Mossad agents (Jessica Chastain, Martin Csokas and Sam Worthington) track down a Nazi war criminal in Berlin to bring him to justice.  Things go horribly awry, but it’s believed that their target is killed trying to escape capture.  In the 1990’s, the three are now played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds.  The daughter of Mirren’s and Wilkinson’s character has written a book about her parents’ heroic actions during the mission which causes the trio to shed light on the skeletons in the closet and come to terms with what really happened.

Director John Madden does a commendable job bouncing back and forth in time as the truth is slowly revealed, and all six performers make the most of their divided screen-time.  Mirren clearly chose this role not for fun or on a whim, but because it’s the type of serious performance that often warrants award consideration.  The problem here is that her counterpart Chastain gets the bulk of the character’s best moments, and it’s interesting to watch Mirren (a woman of a thousand roles over the years) symbolically pass the torch to the up-and-coming Chastain (a woman who has a dozen serious films on the docket in the next twelve months).  Both women posses a compelling allure, and Mirren seemingly ageless should be an icon to Chastain’s generation of actresses.

There are a few tense and suspenseful moments in The Debt, and one powder keg of a scene where Worthington’s character comes to blows with their nefarious captive.  Sadly the film doesn’t hold together, and there’s a weak love triangle element that is poorly written and seems out-of-place. 

Like Brighton RockThe Debt is instantly better just for having Mirren’s name above the title, but also like that film, the quality of the production doesn’t translate to the type of entertainment it had the potential of being.  Mirren puts on her best faces for both roles, but both films could’ve been so much more than tense pretty faces, lipstick and scars.



  1. I saw The Debt over the weekend because I really do love seeing Helen Mirren on the big or small screen. My first distinct memory of her was in the BBC series Prime Suspect. A dark wonderful role for her. Some other highlights include The Clearing and of course The Queen.

    Dianne – what did you think of The Debt? –DHS

  2. I was thinking of seeing “The Debt.” It’s the kind of story I love, the past sneaking up and biting a character(s) in the butt. I love Helen Mirren. It sounds like you enjoyed it in spite of its flaws. How did it fall apart for you?

    Cinda – overall I did enjoy The Debt. I thought the love triangle aspect was weak and took away from the rest of the psychological drama, and the ending seemed rushed. –DHS

  3. I will be seeing THE DEBT tonight with Lucille at 9:30 P.M. at our local multiplex, so I shall see what I shall see. I saw BRIGHTON ROCK last week and was no fan. The classic original could never be remotely matched anyway, but this one was bland. Good comparative piece here David.

    Sam – The Debt has its momments. Brighton Rock was bollocks. –DHS

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