Helen Mirren as Rachel Singer
Tom Wilkinson as Stephan Gold
Jessica Chastain as Young Rachel
Marton Csokas as Young Stephan
Sam Worthington as Young David
Jesper Christensen as Doktor Bernhardt / Dieter Vogel
Ciarán Hinds as David Peretz
Brigitte Kren as Frau Bernhardt / Nurse
Romi Aboulafia as Sarah Gold
Tomer Ben David as Sarah’s Husband
Ohev Ben David as Sarah’s Son
Jonathan Uziel as Mossad Agent
Eli Zohar as Stephan’s Driver
Irén Bordán as Seminar Moderator
Directed by John Madden
Three young Israeli military personnel (Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Czokas) are assigned to find and bring to justice the Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), known as the “Surgeon of Birkenau” for his inhumane genetic experiments on Jewish children and babies in the concentration camps. As their plans fall into place, they start running into problems as a love triangle forms between them, something that Vogel is more than happy to exploit against them. Decades later, secrets they’ve kept hidden about the mission threaten to resurface and Rachel, the only woman on the mission (played in present-day by Helen Mirren) must deal with it.
A time-spanning thriller involving Mosaad agents and Nazi war criminals might not seem like the most exciting prospect for a film until you realize that this one was conceived by Matthew Vaughn and his writing partner Jane Goldman (“Kick-Ass” “X-Men: First Class”), which does add an unexpected level of cool to what might normally be a rather stodgy affair.
As it opens, we’re introduced to the three main characters arriving in Israel in 1965 after the conclusion of their mission, two rugged men and a pretty younger woman with a bandage covering the side of her face. We then flash-forward over forty years to an older woman with a nasty scar on her cheek that makes it obvious this is the same woman. She’s Rachel Singer, recruited from the secretarial pool for a mission accompanying two Israeli soldiers to East Berlin to play an important role in their mission to catch a Nazi war criminal. In the late ’90s, Sarah, the daughter of two of the agents is releasing a book documenting the mission that brought her parents together with a third soldier, David Peretz, as the trio’s past has returned to haunt them.
As the film begins, it may not exactly be clear what’s going on, but once the film moves into the past for an extended period of time and follows the trio’s mission in a more linear fashion, it becomes easier to follow. We watch as they first meet and begin to plot how they’re going to capture their Nazi target, now a gynecologist working in East Berlin. Telling what ends up being a fairly simple story in such a complex way could have gone awry if not for the evident pedigree of director John Madden and his ability to use the at times deliberately slow pace to create tension for later.
This is specially true in the scenes between younger Rachel, another brilliant performance by 2011 “It Girl” Jessica Chastain–even more impressive when you realize this was shot nearly two years ago–and their target, played by Jesper Christensen as a deliciously menacing and sadistic individual who enjoys playing mind games with his captors. At this point, it’s fairly obvious that Helen Mirren can do no wrong, and she’s the best part of the present day scenes, really making you believe this is the same woman at two different times in her life. Similarly, the mission leader is played by Marton Czokas in the past and Tom Wilkinson (in a wheelchair, no less) in the present day, both holding their own against the strong actresses. That just leaves Sam Worthington, who is the weak link of the film, giving an uncharacteristically subdued performance to match Ciaran Hinds playing his character in the present day scenes, though it just seems more appropriate for the character later in life.
From the second we see the trio of agents on screen, it’s fairly obvious that a love triangle will develop, and that’s just one of the ways the non-linear structure threatens to take away from the suspense of what might happen. It’s also where the film gets interesting because we see a confrontation play out fairly early on but when it comes to that point in the story, we learn the real reason the three of them have been brought together in present day. In that sense, “The Debt” is somewhat like “Incendies”–currently our favorite movie of 2011–but also similar to “Sarah’s Key,” a movie that wasn’t able to handle the transitions between past and present nearly as effortlessly.
The amount of action is somewhat surprising though it’s mostly the hand-to-hand combat between various characters, but watching the actual kidnapping plot play out offers some of the best suspense at a time when the film is in danger of being bogged down by character development. Once the story returns to present-day, we get a bit of a resolution to the story, although the ending is certainly something that takes away from the stellar work done during the ’60s timeline.
The Bottom Line:
“The Debt” has problems with its pacing as it attempts to tell concurrent stories in past and present, but Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain give such fantastic performances in their respective timelines, it ultimately works quite well in terms of drama and suspense.