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 http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com