In Tel Aviv in 1997, the sudden death of retired Mossad agent David (Ciaran Hinds) stuns his former secret agent partners Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson), triggering a backward glance at the mission that brought them together in 1966: the hunt in East Berlin for Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the feared Surgeon of Birkenau. David's death coincides with the publication of a book by Rachel's daughter, Sarah (Romi Aboulifa), proudly relating the success of the mission, especially her mother's role, in capturing Vogel and killing him while he was attempting to escape. But now Rachel and Stephan are left alone to deal with the consequences of having lived all this time with a lie.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
A thriller with such powerful and emotive elements as The Debt towers above the everyday crime thriller, drawing on the cinematic oxygen of Nazi atrocities and their legacy. The stakes are higher, the imperatives to satisfy justice greater and the emotional agenda larger. Yet John Madden's gripping film maintains its focus on the three central characters and their moral purpose as well as their emotional journey. So it's more intimate than historical (nor hysterical) in tone, engaging us on an intimate level.
Madden, noted for Shakespeare in Love, Mrs Brown and Captain Corelli's Mandolin, excels himself in what is a totally different cinematic environment, and even manages to overcome the not inconsiderable difficulties of working with characters in two time frames, 30 years apart.
This he achieves by astute casting: the 1997 Rachel is played by the formidably talented Helen Mirren and her younger self by Jessica Chastain. The continuity of character is achieved more by psychological than mere look-alike qualities, likewise for Tom Wilkinson's 1966 Stephan played by Marton Csokas, and Ciaran Hinds' David by Sam Worthington. It takes but a couple of scenes to accept them all.
All six deliver highly intelligent characterisations, filled with nuance and complexity. The inevitable love triangle that develops between the three Mossad agents in 1966 is handled with subtle but poignant power, and its resonances are felt 30 years later.
The screenplay, based on a 2007 film by Assaf Bernsetin & Ido Rosenblum, is structured as a series of substantial flashbacks, but the story's driving dynamic is not revealed until near the end, when it comes as a shock - even though Madden signals that there is an underlying demon dogging the Mossad trio.
The film begins with a bang, unsettling and unexpected, before it takes us through a series of establishing scenes. It's not until we're back in East Berlin 30 years prior that the jigsaw pieces begin to slide closer, some fitting, some in limbo.
Some of the most suspenseful scenes take place in the East Berlin consulting rooms of Dieter Vogler, now practicing as a local doctor. The writing, direction and performances make these scenes between Vogler and the 25 year old secret agent Rachel utterly compelling. She is in danger of being discovered by the canny doctor, while she acts as bait. She couldn't be more vulnerable: she has come supposedly for a gynaecological examination.
But there are also more traditional thriller scenes where the Mossad trio is attempting to smuggle the unconscious Vogler out of East Berlin via a disused railway station adjacent to the Wall.
To the screenplay's credit, the complex and volatile issues that are crucial to the plot - the reasons for Mossad hunting Vogel - are given the right weight in the film, which is ultimately a moral question mark: what is the right thing to do in these extraordinary circumstances? And the filmmakers do not presume to provide a neat answer; it's the ambiguity that haunts us.
Evocatively designed and shot on locations in Budapest (standing in for old East Berlin, with a bit of degradation dressing) and Tel Aviv, with a sensitive and effective score by Thomas Newman, The Debt tells a strong story with great conviction and impressive performances.
Review by Louise Keller:
Truth, lies and consequences are the ingredients of this edge-of-seat espionage thriller on whose coattails tug issues of guilt, conscience and morality. Based on the 2007 Israeli film Ha Hov, it's an international story shot in Hungary, Israel and England, skilfully told by a talented team: Oscar-nominated director John Madden, script-writers Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan plus a superlative cast headed by Helen Mirren in top form.
The story plays out like a puzzle in which pieces are added one at a time until we understand the ramification of every revelation. If you like your spy thrillers tense, gripping and meaningful, The Debt should be on the top of your must-see list.
It is Tel Aviv in 1997 and the sudden death of retired Mossad agent David (Hinds) comes as a shock to his former secret agent partners Rachel (Mirren) and Stephan (Wilkinson), triggering a backward glance at the mission that brought them together in 1966: the hunt in East Berlin for Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Christensen), the feared Surgeon of Birkenau. David's death coincides with the publication of a book by Rachel's daughter Sarah (Romi Aboulifa), that relates the success of the mission over 30 years earlier and in particular her mother's role, in capturing Vogel and killing him while trying to escape.
The intrigue begins with a series of events that flicker back and forth in two time frames. The film's opening scene in which we meet the three young Mossad agents symbolically shows their profile in shadow. There is a huge shadow over their lives as we are about to discover.
When Rachel is asked to read an excerpt from her daughter's newly launched book about her top-secret war exploits, the selected chapter recalls New Year's Eve in Berlin, when life changed forever for the then-young Rachel (Chastain), David (Worthington) and Stefan (Csokas). The mood is tense and the Surgeon of Birkenau is their prisoner in the claustrophobic, dark apartment. We cannot help but remember every tiny, memorable detail of what happens. It is not until later, when we see these events once again, that we realise how meaningful they are.
As the pivotal events of the story in the late 60s play out in flashback, it was crucial for the filmmakers to find a young cast who could credibly play the Mirren, Hinds and Wilkinson roles 30 years earlier and that audiences would immediately accept. Exemplary casting allows us to connect immediately with these three key characters, Chastain (recently seen in The Help and Take Shelter) taking on the Mirren role, perfectly embodying the young Rachel with great vitality and vulnerability.
There are three of them in this top secret mission and the triangular relationship between Rachel, David and Stefan evolves with complexity and conflict. We immediately sense the attraction between Rachel and David but things are to play out somewhat differently. Worthington effectively shows that subtlety is also in his acting armour as the loner who is shy to expose his emotions; Csokas is perfect as the outspoken, confident spy who takes what he wants.
My heart nearly stopped in the scene in which Rachel undergoes a gynaecological examination by the feared Dr Vogel. The intimate and vulnerable nature of the scenario and the interaction between the two is terrifying. Christensen is chillingly good.
But it is not only in flashback that the action keeps us on the edge of our seat. As the impact of the past seeps into the present, it is up to Rachel (this time brilliantly played by Mirren), to resume the role of spy one more time and pay the debt to which the film's title refers. In these scenes, the tension is palpable enhanced by Thomas Newman's eclectic and discordant music score. The lead up to the film's powerful climax will make you reel. Superb filmmaking at every turn.
Published first in the Sun-Herald
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DEBT, THE (MA15+)
CAST: Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds, Romi Aboulafia, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington, Jesper Christiansen
PRODUCER: Matthew Vaughn, Kris Thykier, Eduardo Rossof, Eitan Evan
DIRECTOR: John Madden
SCRIPT: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Peter Straughan (based on 2007 film by Assaf Bernsetin, Ido Rosenblum)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Ben Davis
EDITOR: Alexander Berner
MUSIC: Thomas Newman
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jim Clay
RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Universal
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 27, 2012