Thursday, April 24, 2014

‘The Debt’: Honorably paid

Stuck in an East Berlin apartment, responsible for guarding a bound and gagged Nazi villain for an unspecified period of time, three Mossad agents — from left, Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) — find their nerves fraying, as they begin to argue over how best to handle the situation.

From page B7 | September 2, 2011 | Leave Comment

"The Debt"

Four stars

Starring: Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, Jesper Christensen, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds

Rating: R, for violence, profanity and brief sensuality

Until this film came along, I hadn’t realized how much I’ve missed intelligent, well-acted espionage thrillers.

“The Debt” hearkens back to the best of the 1960s and ’70s spy entries: “The Ipcress File,” “Funeral in Berlin,” “Three Days of the Condor” and anything made from a John Le Carre novel. Wonderful stuff.

This new film, tautly paced by director John Madden, is an English-language remake of Israel’s equally engrossing 2007 original, “Ha-Hov.” Madden’s interest in the material is understandable; the Israeli screenplay — by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum — is clever and suspenseful, while also confounding expectations on several occasions.

In other words, it keeps us on the edge of our seats and keeps us guessing. You can’t expect more from a well-crafted espionage saga.

Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) is introduced in 1997, as she attends a book-launch party for her daughter, Sarah (Romi Aboulafia). Sarah, an investigative journalist, has documented a clandestine 1960s Mossad operation that resulted in the apprehension and death of Dieter Vogel, the notorious “surgeon of Birkenau” who killed and maimed thousands of Jews during World War II.

The mission put three young Mossad agents behind the Berlin Wall in 1965: Rachel, Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) and David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds). They returned to Israel as heroes, although — we soon learn — the emotional cost was high. When Rachel is pressed to read a section of her daughter’s book, during the launch party, her stance is anxious and uncomfortable; Mirren’s face conveys considerable unease.

Her reaction is understandable, as we’re swept back to 1965, and to the moment that her younger self — now played by Jessica Chastain — was forced to deal with an unexpected hitch in the assignment.

Madden subsequently cross-cuts between these two time periods: at first concentrating mostly on puzzling encounters in 1997 — the tension between these three former colleagues clearly having reached a boiling point, over the intervening years, for reasons as yet unknown — and then taking us back to the mission itself.

Stephen (now played by Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) have been in East Berlin for awhile, when Rachel arrives. A man believed to be Vogel (Jesper Christensen) has been tracked to his “concealment” in plain sight, where he works as a doctor at an ordinary medical clinic. But his identity needs to be confirmed, and for that a woman is needed … because Vogel is practicing as a gynecologist.

Words cannot convey the creepy awfulness of what Rachel must do next, in order to snap some clandestine photos of this man, because — of course — she must submit to a routine exam. Several routine exams. Chastain does a masterful job of selling this scene; we can sense Rachel’s inner struggle, as she tries not to allow her revulsion give the game away.

Christensen adds volumes to the unsettling atmosphere. Probably more from habit than any actual suspicion — but can we be sure? — Vogel’s “innocent” questions of this young woman are laced with what feel like traps designed to catch her in a lie.

For sheer, unbearable, edge-of-the-seat tension, I’ve not experienced this scene’s equal since Dustin Hoffman faced Laurence Olivier’s dental drill in “Marathon Man” (another great espionage thriller, it should be noted).

Stephan and David, meanwhile, have crafted a means to snatch Vogel — once his identity has been confirmed — and spirit him into West Berlin; at that point, he’ll be handed over to Israeli authorities for another of the very public trials accorded Nazi war criminals.

The plan is impressively meticulous, but we already know that, somehow, it will go wrong: We’ve already seen — during the older Rachel’s reading — that, for some reason, Vogel will wind up captured and concealed within the East Berlin apartment shared by the three young Mossad agents.

That’s the worst possible outcome, because Vogel is a sly, crafty monster: quite able to psychologically manipulate his less experienced adversaries. This cat-and-mouse dynamic — with Vogel restrained in the apartment, as the other three await further instructions on what to do with him — becomes the film’s second act. It’s riveting.

Indeed, Madden’s supreme achievement is generating suspense from situations whose outcomes we already know … to a degree. The film opens on the older Rachel, Stephan and David; clearly they survived whatever took place back in 1965. But at what cost?

Madden is sneaky, as well, with respect to confounding our initial readings of these people. Mirren is repressed, wary and aloof at first blush; the reasons for this soon become obvious. Except that they don’t, and Mirren’s behavior makes even more sense once we learn more.

Csokas, as Stephan’s younger self, is walking tension: always in danger of succumbing to his flashes of temper. He’s a ruthless and driven planner; the mission must succeed, no matter what. Worthington, in contrast, plays the younger David as tightly wound fury: unpredictable and more likely to be spontaneous.

It has been a marvelous year for Chastain, whose excellent work here follows an equally strong performance in “The Help”; both successfully remove the taint of her involvement with the laughably overwrought “Tree of Life.”

Wilkinson and Hinds also are strong actors, their respective takes on Stephan and David tempered and tightly controlled, as one would expect with the passage of time. And Christensen is unforgettable: the stuff of nightmares. Each time Vogel abandons pretense, his stiff formality suddenly replaced by casual brutality, we cannot help but gasp.

My one complaint, and it’s fairly serious, concerns Worthington. His acting chops simply aren’t comparable to all the others, and — most irritatingly — he clumsily slides in and out of his Israeli accent, at times sounding like a Southern California beach bum.

Fortunately, this doesn’t completely damage the suspenseful fun. Madden, an actor’s director who previously brought us “Shakespeare in Love,” “Proof” and “Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown,” understands that tension and empathy spring from the intelligence with which characters are portrayed, which in turn affects the degree to which we identify with them.

And many, many times, we’re standing right alongside these people, holding our breath over what’s about to unfold.

Jolly good show.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at Comment on this review at


Discussion | No comments

The Davis Enterprise does not necessarily condone the comments here, nor does it review every post. Read our full policy



4-H members get ready for Spring Show

By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A1 | Gallery

Will city move forward on public power review?

By Dave Ryan | From Page: A1

Obama to Russia: More sanctions are ‘teed up’

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2, 1 Comment

2 pursuits, 2 arrests keep Woodland officers busy

By Lauren Keene | From Page: A2

Youth sports in focus on radio program

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Rummage sale will benefit preschool

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Concert benefits South Korea exchange

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Conference puts focus on Arab studies

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Davis honors ‘green’ citizens

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

Water rate assistance bill advances

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

Program explores STEM careers for girls

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5, 3 Comments

Embroiderers plan a hands-on project

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

Central Park Gardens to host Volunteer Orientation Day

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5 | Gallery

Volkssporting Club plans North Davis walks

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

Hotel/conference center info meeting set

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

MOMS Club plans open house

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7

Cycle de Mayo benefits Center for Families

By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A8

Author to read ‘The Cat Who Chose to Dream’

By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A12



Things are turning sour

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: B5

The high cost of employment

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6, 1 Comment

High-five to Union Bank

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

Broken sprinklers waste water

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

Three more administrators?

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

Neustadt has experience for the job

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

Here’s a plan to save big on employee costs

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A6, 3 Comments

Davis is fair, thoughtful

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

Ortiz is the right choice for Yolo

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

Tom Meyer cartoon

By Debbie Davis | From Page: A6



DHS tracksters sweep another DVC meet

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1 | Gallery

Another DVC blowout for DHS girls soccer

By Evan Ream | From Page: B1, 2 Comments | Gallery

Young reinvents his game to help Aggies improve on the diamond

By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

DHS boys shuffle the deck to beat Cards

By Thomas Oide | From Page: B1 | Gallery

DHS/Franklin II is a close loss for Devil softballers

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

Baseball roundup: Giants slam Rockies in the 11th

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

UCD roundup: Aggies lose a softball game at Pacific

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B3

Jahn jumps to Sacramento Republic FC

By Evan Ream | From Page: B8





Congressional art competition open to high school students

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

Emerson, Da Vinci to present ‘Once Upon a Mattress’

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

Winters Plein Air Festival begins Friday

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

Bach Soloists wrap up season on April 28

By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A11







Comics: Thursday, April 24, 2014

By Creator | From Page: B6