Mirren shines in taut political thriller ‘The Debt’
Is a painful truth better than an inspiring lie? How would one rate truth on a moral scale against national honor, vindication or justice? These are questions grappled with in The Debt, John Madden’s gripping, tidily made (if at times, starkly visceral) suspense thriller about truth and its consequences. With a featured performance by the iconic Helen Mirren in one of her gutsiest roles, it’s a persuasive, time-traveling political drama about how easily the facts can go astray in pursuit of a more appealing big picture.
Co-scripted by Matthew Vaughn (director of Layer Cake), his writing partner Jane Goldman (their collaborations include Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class), and Peter Straughn, The Debt is adapted from a 2007 Israeli film, Ha-Hov.
The plot unspools in two separate time frames. In 1965, a trio of young Israeli undercover Mossad agents go underground into East Germany on a dangerous mission behind the Berlin Wall. Thirty years later, the three ex-ops briefly reunite under unexpected circumstances.
In 1997, Rachel Singer (Mirren) is making public appearances in Tel Aviv with her daughter, Sarah (Romi Aboulafia), celebrating the publication of Sarah’s book about her mother’s exploits after World War II. Back in the ’60s, Rachel and her two male colleagues, Stephan Gold and David Peretz, became international heroes as young Mossad agents who infiltrated East Berlin on a mission to track down a notorious Nazi war criminal known as the Surgeon of Birkenau and bring him to justice in the West. Her dutiful appearances at Sarah’s book events bring Rachel into uneasy encounters with both Stephan (Tom Wilkinson), now a senior government investigator in a wheelchair, and David (a profoundly haunted Ciaran Hinds), who’s been out of the country for decades.
A new wrinkle has developed in the case they all thought was long since closed, and as Rachel tries to come to grips with the situation, her memories of the original operation come flooding back. In these intense flashbacks, the young Rachel (Jessica Chastain) is a Mossad translator on her first assignment in the field. Crossing the barbed-wire border into East Berlin, she meets her colleagues for the first time: alpha-male team leader Stephan (Marton Csokas), and the more enigmatic David (Sam Worthington). Rachel and David are posing as a young German couple trying to have children, which brings her into the orbit of their target, former Nazi monster Dieter Vogel (imposing Danish actor Jesper Christensen), now a gynecologist at a neighborhood clinic.
Madden is best know for the gorgeous Shakespeare In Love, but here, he deftly cranks up the suspense as the parallel thriller plots play out in both time periods. The Berlin mission involves tapped phones, re-routed trains, vehicle chases, a breathtaking abduction, psychological warfare from the insinuating Vogel (as well as within the itchy romantic triangle the three young ops become), and two shocking scenes of characters battling hand-to-bloody-hand for their lives. (But, of course, for females in the audience, none of this compares to the willies we get every time young Rachel lies down on that exam table, under a sheet; there’s no more scary, vulnerable position for a woman, even if the doctor doesn’t happen to be a wacko Nazi.)
Madden and his writers also take their time establishing their premise, taking scrupulous care to make sure we know who’s who and what’s what between the shifting time frames. Then they slyly twist what we think we know in their savvy reconstruction of the past. Early in the film, the older Rachel reads a climactic passage from her daughter’s book (visualized onscreen). It’s harrowing stuff the first time, but at least as the flashbacks in Rachel’s memory begin to close in on this same pivotal moment, we know what’s coming. Or do we?
Most of the film belongs to the younger actors (the fragile-looking Chastain and sly, calculating Csokas are particularly effective). But Mirren dazzles with her understated ferocity as a woman facing the choices she has made in her life who comes to realize it’s never too late to do the right thing.