Since her Oscar-winning role in “The Queen,” Helen Mirren often brings a gravitas and an air of authority to her work. Even in “Red,” where she played a retired assassin, Mirren brought a level of class to the film despite some of its silliest moments. The actress continues to command respect in her newest film “The Debt,” where she plays Rachel, a former Israeli intelligence official who is both celebrated and revered for the work she did on an undercover mission in East Berlin.
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From 1965 through 1966, a young Rachel (played by Jessica Chastain) and her associates, Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington), are tasked with finding and kidnapping a Nazi war criminal, who was known for the cruel experiments he conducted on prisoners during the Holocaust. Once they kidnap him, the trio plan to sneak him out of the country and transfer him to Israel for trial as a war criminal. Doktor Vogel (Jesper Christensen), who was once known as the “Surgeon of Birkenau“ now works as a gynecologist in Berlin. To confirm his identity, Rachel starts seeking fertility treatments from him. After he is kidnapped, the prisoner’s transfer goes awry leaving the three agents living in a small apartment taking turns feeding and caring for the hostage. When their plan ultimately falls apart, the three agents are forced to make difficult decisions about what they will tell the Israeli military when they return home.
In 1997, the former undercover agents are still being celebrated for the work that they did and Rachel (Mirren), in particular, is now being lionized for her work on a new book. However, the truth about their mission isn’t as simple as their story makes it seem. The three former agents are keeping a secret about what actually happened in Berlin– a secret that could undermine their legacies as heroes.
“The Debt” is a taut and complex thriller that is more than a story about a mission gone wrong. It’s also a complicated story about good and evil. Evil in this story is personified in Christensen, who is deliciously vile in his role as a former Nazi. Once captured, Bernhardt knows that an ugly trial awaits him so he urges the agents to kill him themselves. When they refuse, he begins to manipulate them trying to get them to turn against each other. However, his brutality shines through and when they reveal their own vulnerabilities, the doctor makes cruel comments about how easy it was to murder millions of Jews in the Holocaust. Like Hannibal Lecter, the doctor knows how to get inside people’s heads and make them feel inferior to him.
Directed by John Madden, whose previous work includes “Shakespeare in Love,” “The Debt” is never willing to make easy decisions about its characters or its plot. One of the story’s most interesting choices was to focus on the relationship between Rachel and Stephan rather than the one Rachel shares with David. David is a more likable and empathetic character than the angrily paternalistic Stephan but he’s also more naive and vulnerable. While Rachel and Stephan build careers out of the “success” of their mission, David is haunted by the truth and becomes a prisoner himself: a prisoner of the lie he helped create. Worthington, who was a weak lead in “Avatar,” does a solid acting job in “The Debt” alongside the cruel Christensen and regal Mirren.
At one point near the end of the film, Rachel says “we can’t go back.” It’s a revealing quote about a trio of people whose lives are still rooted in their past together.
“The Debt,” like the hard truths that its characters try to hide from the world, won’t be easy to forget.