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Judy Thorburn's Movie Reviews

The Debt | Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds and Jessica Chastain | Review

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The Debt

It isn't about money.  The Debt involves something more personal; lies, regrets, guilt, retribution and the consequences that could last a lifetime.

Based on a 2007 Israeli spy film by Assaf Bernstein, the remake written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan tells the story of three Mossad secret agents sent on a mission to Berlin in 1966 to find and capture Joseph Mengele-like monster, Dieter Vogel, known as the  Surgeon of Birkenau and take him back to Israel to stand trial as a Nazi war criminal.

The opening takes place in Israel in 1997, at a book release party for Sarah, the writer and daughter of former Mossad agent, Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) a facially scarred former beauty, whose secret, dangerous mission with two fellow agents David and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) decades earlier are detailed in the book.   Hailed as heroes by Israel, the trio are about to unite when word comes of David's (Ciaran Hinds) tragic death.

Told through two timelines, flashbacks thirty years earlier and then back to the present, the answer to the mystery surrounding David's death and Rachel's distressed behavior at the book release party eventually are revealed and woven together in this gripping thriller.

With the timeline shifting to 1966, three different actors embody the younger versions of the Mossad agents.  Twenty five year old Rachel (played by Jessica Chastain of The Help and Tree of Life) is sent to Berlin to live and work with two fellow agents David (Sam Worthington, Avatar) and Stephan (Marton Csakos, Lord of the Rings) in a plan to abduct the despicable doctor who has assumed a new identity and is working as a gynocologist.  Part of their scheme is to have Rachel and David pose as husband and wife, and soon a love triangle develops between the allies that will forever leave an indelible mark on their lives.

Pretending to be a married woman wanting to get pregnant, Rachel sets the trap in motion by becoming a patient of the cunning doctor who, during her visits, proves to be suspicious of the young woman. Vogel (Danish actor Jasper Christensen, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace) has reason to be paranoid since he has escaped justice for his horrendous medical experiments on concentration camp victims. Prepared and always one step ahead with answers to his probing questions, it becomes just a matter of picking the right time for an anxious and careful Rachel, who must hide her revulsion and hatred, to pounce on her target.  The kidnapping is accomplished, but not long after his capture and being kept in the agents' apartment, something goes terribly awry.

What actually happened and the deception employed in its aftermath is the crux of this well crafted story that offers surprising and shocking twists and turns.  As revelations begin to surface, the truth that has haunted the spys for decades sets off a chain of events with Rachel once again risking her life.  But this time, it is on a self imposed mission.

Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) does a splendid job delivering a tightly paced, suspenseful, complex, yet coherent story that never skips a beat, consistantly keeping the focus on what is at hand.  The cast is fantastic. Rising star Jessica Chastain does a complete turnaround from her marvelous work as the ditzy, but kind hearted blonde bombshell in The Help. Proving once more  she isn't just another pretty face, Chastain commands the screen, showing great range as the vulnerable, scared, but determined spy. Helen Mirren, as always, is on the mark, exemplifing that well into her 60's, she is consistantly at the top of her game. Sam Worthington impressed me with his moving, yet restrained performance as the young, guarded David, an emotionally wounded Holacaust survivor determined to supress any romantic feelings toward Rachel which would get in the way of his mission.

Ciaran Hinds as the elder David, and Marton Csokas and Tom Wilkonson as the young and older versions of Stephan, the leader of the mission are all memorable, yet I couldn't help but be distracted by the undeniable fact that these actors cast as their earlier and later counterparts don't look anything alike. Thankfully, they compensate with strong performances.

Rounding out the cast is Jesper Christensen whose chilling portrayal of the cunning Nazi doctor conveys the evil, diabolical soul of a demon in human form.

The Debt is an intelligent and engrossing spy thriller that draws you in and never lets go until the powerful final sequence. As one of the year's best films,  I highy recommend you see it.  You owe it to yourself. Trust me. The payoff is worth it.

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