by Jennice Fuentes
Watching John Madden’s taut new thriller, The Debt, reminded me of a smorgarsbord. Yes, so much to process, so much to stomach…so little time. The Debt uses the yarn woven in the 2007 Israeli thriller, Ha-Hov, to retell the story of 3 young Mossad agents who in 1965 go to East Berlin under deep cover for a nazi hunting mission. The goal is to bring to justice a gynecologist who is suspected of being the infamous “Surgeon of Birkenau”.
Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain, this generation’s Julia Roberts) is the only woman in the team of 3 that includes the older and ambitious Stefan (the smoldering Marton Csokas) and the younger and damaged David (Sam Worthington). As the only female in the team, she’s left with much of the heavy lifting since vital to their mission is her cover as a wife with fertility problems, which makes her endure physical examinations and injections from the creepy Dr. Dieter Vogel (a perfect Jesper Christensen). Living in tight and miserable quarters, this restless and attractive trio starts to have the inevitable daily wear and tear of too close for comfort reality. When the mission goes awry, the 3 become four, as they are now stuck at home with the nefarious Vogel, who is clearly the master of his domain, and not in a good way.
With so much pressure it is a matter of time before Vogel acts like the criminal that he is and the three of them make a pact to tell an official story as to what supposedly happened to Vogel. Since they could not bring him back to Israel to face justice, they took justice in their own hands. Or so they claimed.
While the non-linear story begins in the past, it is now more than 30 years since the events in East Berlin and the now retired Mossad agents are about to have their moment of reckoning. Although they are now revered in Israel, Rachel (played now by Helen Mirren) and Stefan’s (played now by Tom Wilkinson) daughter Sara (Romi Aboulafia ) has just published a book about her parents’ amazing and courageous mission. But from just one look at Rachel, you know that something is going on. Stefan is now on a wheelchair and David (Ciaran Hinds) seems like a loon. Apparently the secret that they hold regarding what really happened that day in 1965 is starting to wear them out. Or is it? David’s suicide prompts a cascade of events that will result in the adult Rachel having to finally really finish the mission they should have finished in 1965. Only that now, Rachel is a senior citizen and Stefan is wheelchair bound.
The story is at its most exciting when we are following the young versions in their mission to bring down the doc. With no mobile phones, internet, computers or any kind of fancy looking weapons, these three are in a very old-fashioned mission and you clearly sense their veins pulsing and the tension building as they move in on their target. The danger of their task is very apparent in every frame and the lack of glamour and artifact makes for action sequences more like Munich and less like James Bond.
Sadly, this nicely developed tension is all but lost once we get to the present. Watching the older versions grapple with the news that may result in a full blown scandal feels much more like a police procedural than a thriller. Until, that is, the present-day Rachel springs into action in the Ukraine, which found me biting my nails the entire time. Even if you must suspend disbelief to go along with her mission, Mirren is believable in anything. Period.
And in trying to come clean after 30 years, Rachel will finally become the mother that unsuspecting Sara can be proud of. Regardless of the price.
The movie’s strength relies completely on the performances of the young Mossad agents, who are in charge of carrying the narrative to the present. And while Chastain may seem a bit delicate to be a Mosad agent, you only have to see her subdue the doctor with her legs on stirrups to know how lethal she can be. It’s a bit distracting that none of the older actors look anywhere close to the young counterparts but since they are all supreme masters of the medium, this isn’t a deal breaker. Again, acting saves the day…
Rating: R Duration: 1:44 quick minutes