‘The Debt’ reimagines Israeli espionage thriller

Laurie Sparham/Courtesy
Academy Award winner Helen Mirren stars as retired secret agent Rachel Singer in John Maddenâ's espionage thriller THE DEBT, a Focus Features release.

The saying goes that those who can’t do teach, and those who can’t teach make Holocaust movies. John Madden, director of such sappy, trophy-swiping schlock as “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) and “Proof” (2005), competently elevates “The Debt” from the constraints of that genre and into another: a dark, rich espionage thriller. A remake of the 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov,” it is gritty and adult, with believable characters caught in unbelievable circumstances.

The film is clever in the way it reveals information. One scene, a flashback in the film’s opening where a woman is attacked in the shadows for reasons unknown, is repeated later for dramatic effect. The last act boasts a barrage of sinuous plot twists, ending as drops of blood hit the floor like an ellipsis.
Discomforting and disturbing, “The Debt” offers a welcome, overdue close to a summer of movies steeped in scatology and sensationalism, all catering to the lowest common denominator. “The Debt” might be too queasy for such previously placated audiences to stomach but man, does it have a force.

Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) are a trio of Mossad secret agents who, in 1966, undertake a delicate mission to kidnap Nazi war criminal Dr. Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), now hiding in East Berlin as a gynecologist. Vogel is a Josef Mengele type, a doctor who performed grotesque experiments on Jews during the Holocaust. Jump to 1997, when Rachel — now older, scarred (literally) and played by Helen Mirren — and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) receive the news that David (now played Ciaran Hinds) has killed himself. This scene is the first of many shock moments: David willingly steps in front of a bus and is crushed. From here the film begins to reconstruct events and explain why these three characters find themselves at a morally muddied crossroads.

For the sake of verisimilitude, all the actors acquire Israeli accents rather than the standard British accents given to characters to make them seem foreign. This choice is sometimes distracting, but the performances are solid and even exceptional in the case of Jessica Chastain, the dewy, rising star of 2011.

We’ve seen Chastain display peerless range this year in “The Tree of Life” and “The Help,” but Rachel is her best role yet. Though she wields an impressive array of combat techniques and is able to handle herself, physically, amid the machismo of David and Stefan, Rachel is not fearless. She has doubts about the mission, perhaps because Israeli intelligence has no doubt exploited her gender to get to Vogel. Scenes with Rachel and Vogel — he readies the speculum as she tightens her grip on the examination table — are powerful in that the banter is always loaded as Rachel struggles to shirk her emotions.

Sudden bursts of violence and tightly wrought scenes of suspense afford “The Debt” both efficacy as a historical thriller (but never as historical commentary) and a drama about denial, about the lies we tell for the sake of self-preservation. The older actors — Mirren, Wilkinson, Hinds — revive these tired themes in their nuanced performances. No surprise, really, since these three are among the best in the biz. Mirren is as we’ve never seen her before, with a scar like a hook and enough emotional baggage to merit a movie on its own. She’s one tough, hard-ass cookie.

Though “The Debt” is never as profound as it aspires to be, and a late August release doesn’t place it among other movies vying for fall prizes, Madden’s film packs more thrills and smarts than the average escapist fare. It’s actually quite memorable, at least until the next Holocaust-inspired movie rolls in.

Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic.