Published: September 7, 2011
Directed by John Madden
Helen Mirren probably isn’t the first star who comes to mind when one thinks of thrillers about krav maga-trained Israeli secret agents, but then Mirren has made her living as an actress defying expectations. In The Debt, a remake of a 2007 Israeli film, she plays Rachel, a former Mossad agent whose past comes back to haunt her when her daughter writes a book about Rachel’s most famous and troubling mission.
In flashbacks to 1966, Rachel (played in her youth by Jessica Chastain) joins David (Sam Worthington) and Stephan (Marton Csokas) on a mission to apprehend Dr. Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the “Butcher of Birkenau,” a Nazi who performed horrific experiments on Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust. Postwar, Vogel was working as an ob-gyn in East Germany, so Rachel posed as a women having trouble conceiving in order to get close to him. As any woman knows, putting your feet in stirrups and spreading for a trusted doctor is a deeply uncomfortable and vulnerable position. Watching young Rachel do it with someone she knows to be a monster is gut-wrenching. Chastain is able to portray complex and conflicting emotions with a small half-hidden change of expression. She imbues Rachel with a mix of strength and vulnerability that is captivating.
The plan is to bring Vogel back to Israel to stand trial, but getting anyone out of East Germany is a difficult task, nevermind kidnapping a doctor. Things go awry and the team ends up holding Vogel captive as they try to find another route out. Watching the impact that captivity has on the captors as well as the captive is engrossing. Each member of the team struggles with his or her personal disgust for and anger toward Vogel while trying desperately not to be like him.
Christensen is truly chilling as master manipulator Vogel, and Csokas crackles with intensity as team leader Stephan. Worthington fares all right as the quiet David, but his accent slips in and out distractingly. The trio has great chemistry and director John Madden keeps us transfixed by the crumbling postwar world. Madden’s only major misstep is in the double casting. Mirren and Chastain are both splendid as Rachel and create a believable arc for the character; when problems from the old mission seep into Rachel’s current life, her actions are totally understandable. But Ciarán Hinds, playing contemporary David, looks more like Csokas’ Stephan than Worthington’s young David. And Tom Wilkinson and Csokas’ paired portrayals of Stephan feel disjointed.
Still, Madden’s film is a deft and provocative thriller that flits back and forth in time, showing the ending early in the film yet still managing to build suspense and offer several genuine surprises. In a time of year when the release schedule tends toward post-summer/pre-award-season crap, The Debt is a welcome exception.
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