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Jessica Chastain in THE DEBT (Photo: Laurie Sparham/Focus Features)

Directed by John Madden
Produced by
Matthew Vaughn, Kris Thykier, Eduardo Rossoff & Eitan Evan
Written by Vaughn & Jane Goldman & Peter Straughan, based on the film Ha-Hov

Released by Focus Features
USA. 113 min. Rated R
With Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington & Jesper Christensen


Unusually female-centric, The Debt is a revenge thriller with a twist of conscience. Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water (2004) and Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005) focused on Israeli Mossad agents anguished over carrying out assassination assignments, but here a trio feel guilty for what they didn’t accomplish.

Three young agents land at the Tel Aviv airport in 1965: David Peretz (Sam Worthington), Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas), and Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), with a bandaged face. They leave the dark hold of a plane to applause on a blindingly sunny tarmac. Their triumphant return after killing a notorious Nazi doctor is narrated proudly by Stephan and Rachel’s daughter 30 years later as she reads from her laudatory biography of her mother at an elegant book party. Again, there is applause over how the three “faced a monster and vanquished him.” Later that night, outside her comfortable home, still-scarred Rachel (Helen Mirren) has an uneasy reunion first with David (Ciarán Hinds), then with her ex-husband, the wheelchair-bound Stephan (Tom Wilkinson). They are each haunted, in different ways, by what happened three decades ago, told in repeating flashbacks, first to their version of the heroic story they reported, and, then, to what really happened.

On her first assignment, nervous 25-year-old Rachel is sent to join her colleagues in East Berlin—they need a woman to work undercover as a patient of a fertility specialist (Jesper Christensen), who has been tentatively identified as the “Surgeon of Birkenau,” Dr. Dieter Vogel. Rachel undergoes the awkward discomfort of a gynecological exam with a metal speculum while surreptitiously photographing the doctor over her exposed thighs to confirm his identity. Back in their leaky apartment, the three agents are a tense triad preparing for a gutsy operation to kidnap the doctor. Each has family history motivations, and a rehearsal for the escape at an abandoned railroad station patrolled by German guards reinforces the Holocaust associations. The fraught chemistry of their romantic triangle—Chastain is a lovely pawn between Worthington’s brooding loner and Csokas’s more flamboyant patriotic leader—actually helps her on return visits to the unctuous doctor; he can tell she’s had sex. And when the operation begins, it’s startling to see Rachel snap from that supine position of female helplessness to attack, like Lotte Lenya in From Russia With Love.

The adrenaline rush from their daring escapade shifts into a taut psychological battle of wits as the agents take shifts to guard their prisoner until they can spirit him out of the country. The Israelis’ intend to keep the doctor alive to face public trial in Israel, but their stress is heightened as he cannily scrutinizes them to poke and prod for their weaknesses. (Though some will presume that he represents a wish fulfillment fantasy of capturing Dr. Mengele, there were actually many Nazi doctors who carried out grotesque procedures, including the 20 tried for crimes against humanity at the Nuremburg “Doctors’ Trial” in 1947.) The doctor here just spouts anti-Semitic clichés to provoke his captors, but in the 2007 Israeli film that this is based on, the gynecologist clearly put the Final Solution within the context of Nazi eugenics.

In this version, the romantic triangle is more, er, fleshed out, in that claustrophobic apartment and back in Israel. The somewhat confused irony about Israeli self-delusion over Mossad heroics or the personal, and nationalistic, consequences of living with a Big Lie are uneasily subsumed by another theme, the changes in women’s roles. This helps to justify why and how Rachel carries out the suspenseful, violent conclusion. As a thinking older woman’s action hero, Mirren not only matches the status and cerebral presence of Israeli actress Gila Almagor from the original, but she jags convincingly between sympathy and vengeance, and is much more shaded than in her retired MI6 assassin role in last year’s Red. Nora Lee Mandel
September 10, 2011



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