Directed by John Madden
“Academy Award winner Helen Mirren and two-time Academy Award® nominee Tom Wilkinson star in ‘The Debt.’ In 1966, three Mossad agents were assigned to track down a feared Nazi war criminal hiding in East Berlin, a mission accomplished at great risk and personal cost – or was it? Thirty years later, the suspense builds as shocking news and surprising revelations compel retired team member Rachel Singer (Mirren) to take matters into her own hands.”
“The Debt” is rated R for some violence and language.
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 especially 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.
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