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The Debt
Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

The Debt: Film Review

10:08 PM PDT 10/14/2010 by Kirk Honeycutt

The Bottom Line

Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkerson star in a John Madden-directed film that offers a new wrinkle to Nazi-hunter movies. 

As a thriller, "The Debt" performs many if not all the right moves. Where the John Madden-directed film gets into trouble is in wanting to deal with the Holocaust without being entirely a period film.

As a thriller, The Debt performs many if not all the right moves. The suspense builds nicely, the twists come as surprises and its key characters are vivid enough. Where the John Madden-directed film gets into trouble is in wanting to deal with the Holocaust without being entirely a period film. About half of the story takes place in 1997, but if you do the math, its Dr. Mengele-like Nazi villain would be positively ancient. Indeed, the climatic sequence must take place in a hospital for dementia, which is not where you want a thriller to end up. It's almost funny.

How hard would it have been to move everything back a couple of decades to the late '70s, when Mengele figures last made appearances in such films as Marathon Man and The Boys From Brazil?

If one ignores this puzzling oversight, Debt has a new take on the subgenre of Nazi-hunter movies. With Helen Mirren top-billed, the Miramax film could do modest business in adult venues when the film opens Dec. 29 following festival debuts at Deauville and Toronto.

The film, scripted by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goodman and Peter Straughan, is based on an Israeli movie, Ha-Hov, little seen outside that country. From the synopsis of the original, it would appear this film has improved on plot elements to make the characters in their middle age more sympathetic if not downright tragic.

It's initially difficult to get your footing as the movie cuts back and forth from 1966 Berlin and 1997 Tel Aviv. But it's clear soon enough that the focus is on three Mossad agents who, during the Cold War, capture a war criminal (Jesper Christensen), a physician who performed horrific experiments in the camps. The trouble is he hid in East Berlin, so the agents must smuggle him and themselves into West Berlin in a tricky operation that requires split-second timing.

Rachel (Jessica Chastain), on her first operational assignment, and David (Sam Worthington) pretend to be a married couple with infertility problems in order to trap the physician, who practices gynecology. Stefan (Marton Csokas) pretty much runs the operation out of a dismal upstairs flat in a decaying part of the city.

The close quarters help foster a sexual triangle among the trio in which David, who has fallen for Rachel, is unable to make the first move, but Stefan is more than willing. All are deeply damaged individuals, Holocaust survivors painfully aware of their own families' tragedies in Nazi Germany.

Thirty-one years later, the three are considered heroes in Israel. Rachel (Mirren) married Stefan (Tom Wilkinson), and a daughter has just written a book about her parents' legendary exploit. David (Ciaran Hinds) disappeared years ago to travel widely. Then his sudden re-appearance coinciding with the book's publication triggers a crisis for all three. It seems they have all hidden certain facts about their heroic deed.

The film moves briskly but not so fast as that it doesn't carefully delineate its four main characters: the three Mossad agents and their captive. The agents live in a ghost world of absent relatives. Their mission isn't for country or honor; its a blood oath from the living to the dead. So when things go wrong, this isn't just a botched spy mission, it's a debt that must be paid off.

The war criminal also makes a fascinating study in evil. Once the veneer of his bedside manner slips away, he is unrepentant and cagey, knowing just which buttons to push to agitate his captives. It's a cat-and-mouse game where the cat and mouse change roles.

Location work in Tel Aviv and Budapest and studio interiors in London blend well. All aspects of the production shine as Ben Davis' cinematography makes excellent use of Jim Clay's sets, and Thomas Newman's score gooses the tension in the film's many suspenseful moments.