The espionage thriller begins in 1997, as shocking news reaches retired Mossad secret agents Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) about their former colleague David (Ciarán Hinds). All three have been venerated for decades by their country because of the mission that they undertook back in 1966, when the trio (portrayed, respectively, by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington) tracked down Nazi war criminal Vogel (Jesper Christensen) in East Berlin. At great risk, and at considerable personal cost, the team’s mission was accomplished – or was it? The suspense builds in and across two different time periods, with startling action and surprising revelations.
THE DEBT is a solid drama that takes its time to unfold, but in so doing, offers more than the adrenalin highs of a standard thriller. The film is aimed at an audience with some knowledge of the Holocaust and post-World War 2 history. We understand why the Mossad trio is invested in their mission with a specific zeal. They’re not Commie-busting CIA agents, they’re bringing a war criminal back to stand trial.
The action sections are deftly handled. Interestingly, the heart of the film is in the scenes where the agents are confined to the apartment in East Berlin. This is where they begin to fight self-doubt and each other; the truth of what their mission means, affects each agent differently. This psychological drama is played out in a series of taut vignettes. It’s here that director John Madden shines. Our understanding and perhaps our opinion of these characters shift as their certainties are shaken. Csokas, Worthington and Chastain do some particularly fine work in these scenes. Also worthy of note is Jesper Christensen who plays the war criminal Vogel.
The 1997 part of the film is handled less surely. Hinds, Wikinson and Mirren are all terrific actors and have good moments in their scenes. Exactly how the now legendary Mossad agents have handled their subsequent history could have been more clearly dramatised. This was partly the fault of the jumpy timeline in the first section of the film. The audience has to work to establish who is who. Where these three agents have traveled emotionally and ethically in the intervening 30 years was left somewhat vague. And because the film has a moral dilemma at its core, we need to know what these people believe in 1966 and in 1997.
THE DEBT is based on 2007 Israeli feature film called HaHov (which also means ‘the debt’). Director Madden and the three writers (including KICK-ASS director Matthew Vaughn) have created a smart and compelling remake. It goes a little off-track near the end, but finds its way back home. This is essentially a tale about living with compromise and the effect this can have on a life, but for audiences who enjoy hand-to-hand-combat, Evil Nazis, stylishly designed sets and hot young actors, you will also be well served.
THE DEBT opens in Australia on November 10. It runs for 114 minutes. I rated it 3.5/5.