Review: The Debt

Mossad vs Nazis - I spy a hit


By Jonathan Foreman, September 27, 2011
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Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson as Israeli ex-agents who must finally complete a 31-year-old mission

Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson as Israeli ex-agents who must finally complete a 31-year-old mission

The Debt is the most remarkable film of the year so far: an exciting espionage thriller, a love story and a provocative meditation on crime and punishment. A remake of Assaf Bernstein's 2007 Israeli film, Ha-Hov, it reveals John Madden, director of Shakespeare in Love and Mrs Brown, as a master of action and suspense.

Here, he is working with a terrific cast. Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and the excellent Hungarian actor Marton Csokas play young Mossad agents sent in 1966 to kidnap a Mengele-like Nazi doctor who is practising gynaecology in East Berlin. Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds play the three former agents in 1997, as a book comes out in Tel Aviv celebrating their now famous mission of 31 years before.

The film flashes back and forth between the two decades. The Mossad team, all three the children of Holocaust victims, were highly motivated and trained. But their quarry, superbly played by Jesper Christensen, was more dangerous than they realised. The viewer soon discovers the mission went awry and the three agents have kept their failure a secret. However, a report that the "surgeon of Birkenau" is alive in Ukraine threatens to expose them. Wilkinson's and Mirren's characters have no choice but to finish the dangerous business they began in their youth.

The film asks tricky questions about the problems of remaining civilised while pursuing justice and/or vengeance but, unlike so many British and European films, it takes evil seriously and avoids trite moral equivalences.

Nor does the moral questioning undermine the drama. The tension never flags, though the sequences set in the '60s are inevitably more gripping. The scenes in which Chastain's vulnerable Rachel has to submit to the gynaecologist's stirrups in order to identify and then trap the Nazi doctor are terrifying.

In general, The Debt is a remarkable feat of storytelling. Few recent films have incorporated flashbacks and flash-forwards with such skill.

Admittedly, it is difficult to buy the marvellous Ciaran Hinds as Sam Worthington at 62. On the other hand, both Mirren and Wilkinson are so wonderfully convincing as ex-agents - and ex-spouses - that suspension of disbelief is not a problem.

Last updated: 11:49am, September 27 2011