'The Debt' Review: Explosively Good Story, Weak Ending

The Debt” opens in 1950s Israel with three young Jewish Mossad agents – Rachel, Stephan and David – returning home after a covert operation in East Berlin. Their job was to capture the elusive Dieter Vogel, the “Surgeon of Buchenau,” and bring him to Israel to stand trial for his crimes against humanity. Years later, the daughter of Rachel and Stephan authors a book celebrating their mission: Vogel’s capture, the botched attempt to smuggle him out of East Berlin on a train, hiding him in their apartment for weeks and eventually, as he tried to escape, killing him. But the truth is not so simple. Rather, it’s a secret the three have kept for years. Now, after decades of living a lie, the truth threatens to get out, and only Rachel has the power to silence it forever.


The film is based on a 2007 Israeli movie by the same name, and adapted by the writers of “Kick-Ass” and “X-Men: First Class” (Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman) with help from Peter Straughan who wrote the screenplay for “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” Their experience at adaptation shows, as “The Debt” is a beautifully crafted story blending events from East Berlin in the 1950s with Israel in the 1990s.

Like his previous films “Proof” and “Shakespeare in Love,” director John Madden’s latest features a powerful female in a male-dominated world (mathematics, 16th Century England, espionage), where being a woman is both an asset and liability. Rachel is the newest addition to the Mossad sleeper cell hunting Vogel, and her presence in their cramped apartment headquarters immediately adds tension. She is also perhaps the most important member of the group: she must visit Vogel’s women’s clinic, verify his identity and drug him. It’s a significant task for a first-time field agent and Jessica Chastain (who recently appeared in “The Help” and “Tree of Life,” which I haven’t seen) as the young Rachel conveys a delicate balance of vulnerable femininity and cunning agent – perfect for the character. As an older Rachel, Helen Mirren is significantly different from her “RED” ex-agent, less confident and snarky, more fragile, with a greater sense of duty. Tom Wilkinson and Marton Csokas as Stephan/young Stephan are both forceful and charming when it serves them, an ambitious, likable Mossad mission leader who quickly sours as the mission deteriorates. Sam Worthington as the young David gives a fine quiet performance, subdued and timid with brief explosions of anger. Most of his characters have been pretty emotionless, so it’s nice to see a more expressive side of him.

Jesper Christensen is not unlike his recent Bond villain as the sadistic Vogel, whose calm persona covers a quietly sinister monster. There’s a reason why the Mossad agents keep his mouth taped shut when they hold him in their cramped apartment: He drips venom with every word, and reminded me of Walter Slezak in Hitchcock’s “The Lifeboat.”

Madden again shows his brilliance as a director in “The Debt.” After a failed attempt to extract Vogel from Berlin, the agents are forced to keep him in their apartment, under watch, while waiting for new orders from Israel. Madden films the scenes in their tiny apartment to maximum claustrophobic effect, emphasizing its oppressively small size, and splicing the feeding and care taking of the bound Vogel with scenes of the agents sparring and Stephan banging out a tune on a piano. It’s a good scene showing the group’s nerves on edge, and illustrating how Vogel exploits it.

The film’s only problem is its ending, which pits elderly characters in a knock-down, drag-out fight to the death – something better left to their younger counterparts. In “RED,” Mirren kicks ass. Here, she just falls on it and flails about for a while. It undermines the seriousness of the conclusion. Even so, it’s worthy entertainment considering the performances of the leads, and storytelling ability of its director and writers.


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