In the eyes of her fellow Israelis, Rachel is a former Mossad agent and an unalloyed hero. It’s 1997, at a posh Tel Aviv hotel, where she’s attending the launch of a book that details her intrepid role, more than 30 years before, in the capture and slaying of a Nazi war criminal, the infamous “surgeon of Birkenau.” Her badly scarred cheek bears public testament to the ordeal of that long-ago mission, but her pinched manner hints at something private and repressed – a dark secret still festering.
So begins The Debt, which, re-making a recent Israeli film, is quick to establish its duelling time frames and the troubled Rachels who occupy them: the older lionized woman living in the present (Helen Mirren) and her younger frightened self embarking on that dangerous venture in the past (Jessica Chastain).
Early on, this temporal hopscotching has us a bit confused, but, when the principal action starts back in 1966, the movie settles down, and we do too. There, crossing the Wall into an East Berlin apartment, Rachel joins her fellow agents Stephan and David (Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington). Her job is to pose as a German wife struggling to conceive, and thus requiring the services of a gynecologist – specifically, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), now an aging doctor but once that hideously amoral surgeon.
She pays him two preliminary visits, and director John Madden, with considerable help from Christensen, injects into both scenes a palpable dose of creepiness – the erstwhile monster interred within layers of accumulated gentility, buried but still very much alive. The third visit gives rise to the capture and the ensuing action sequence, which Madden handles to equally skilled effect. The editing is crisp, the suspense taut. Yet the escape plan goes awry, leaving the trio to forge a hasty alternative while holding Vogel prisoner. Now, back in that shabby apartment, the doctor is bound and gagged, but the monster is disinterred and dangerous.
Alas, this is where a hitherto credible plot gets over-busy and tests our resolve. I confess to flunking the test, notably at that moment when the already ambitious narrative veers off on two further tangents – a thin love triangle forms among the agents, even as the evil Vogel takes to playing head games with his captors. The direction and performances remain as solid as ever, but they’re both growing obscured by the top-heavy plot.
What happens next can’t be divulged, except to say that, moving ahead to 1997, it’s responsible for the elder Rachel’s inner turmoil, not to mention the perpetually sour look that Mirren plasters on her scarred face. Why such angst? Well, let’s be content with Stephan’s politically popular explanation: “The truth is a luxury.”
Or maybe not. In the third act, that luxury triggers a final burst of action, when the setting shifts to the Ukraine, and Mirren’s Rachel comes out of retirement for one last escapade. Breaking into offices, ferreting crucial info from conveniently accessible files and displaying some impressive physical moxie, the old soldier lives to fight anew. Surprisingly, once more the suspense feels genuine even though, at this point, the whole premise seems false.
Some movies have that partial magic, cramping our brain in disbelief yet still sending a tingle down the spine. But it’s a magic most often found in, and best suited to, fantasy flicks with superheroes. Political thrillers with flawed heroes demand a different potion, one that mixes the grit of reality with the seeds of excitement until they reach a critical mass and explode. In that sense, for all its strengths and good intentions, The Debt owes a debt to the wrong genre – Birkenau wasn’t fantasy; too often, this movie is.
- Directed by John Madden
- Written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Peter Straughan
- Starring Jessica Chastain, Helen Mirren, Jesper Christensen
- Classification: 14A