The Debt

© 2011 Ray Wong

Set in 1997 and 1966, The Debt is a rare kind of suspense that is both an espionage thriller and a human drama about the three protagonists.

On the eve of the release of a biography detailing her life as a celebrated Mossad agent in the 60s, Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) receives the devastating news from her ex-husband Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) that their mutual friend David (Ciarán Hinds) has committed suicide. She also discovers David has left a significant piece of information concerning their mission in 1966 that made them, especially Rachel, national heroes. More important, it urges Rachel to reveal a secret they all have been keeping for 30 years.

Back in 1966, Rachel (Jessica Chastain), David (Sam Worthington) and Stephan (Marton Csokas) are a team of agents about to carry out a secret mission in East Berlin. They've tracked down a Nazi criminal, Dexter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), and plan to abduct him and bring him back to Israel to stand trial. Stephan is an ambitious, aggressive ass, while David is quiet, mysterious and introspective. They have been working together for two years, and their new partner Rachel instantaneously alters the dynamics.

Together they carry out the well-thought out plan. However, due to unforeseeable circumstances and mixed-up emotions, the mission fails and they are forced keep Vogel their prisoner until they find another way. Vogel is able to manipulate Rachel and David enough to create for himself an opportunity to escape.What happens next would go on to haunt Rachel, David and Stephan for years to come.

The three veteran actors are excellent in their respective roles. Helen Mirren (Arthur) does a fine job as the older Rachel as she contemplates the past, the future and the right thing to do. Her nuanced performance is thoughtful and emotional. Tom Wilkinson (The Green Hornet) is solid as Stephan -- he shows enough ruthlessness and ambition behind his concerns and regrets to match his younger counterpart. Ciarán Hinds (The Rite) only has a few scenes but conveys David's turmoil and yearning for Rachel effectively.

The young actors who portray the same characters have meatier roles as their story, told in flashbacks, is the centerpiece. Sam Worthington (Avatar) excels in playing solitary but sensitive David, and his chemistry with his costars lifts the film to a higher plane. Marton Csokas (Alice in Wonderland) exudes great charisma and sensuality as ruthless, ambitious and seductive Stephan. But the true star of the film is Jessica Chastain (The Help), who dazzled as Celia Foote in The Help and then turns 180˚ to play frightened but resourceful and determined Rachel. Her star has risen immensely.

Written by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass), Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass) and Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare at Goats), the screenplay is based on the 2007 Israeli thriller Ha-Hov. It is taut, suspenseful and intriguing, effectively using the frame story to weave the flashbacks to tell one cohesive story. While the "secret" isn't difficult to guess, how the characters got there is intriguing enough to propel the plot from 1966 to 1997, where the characters must face the ghost of their past.

The plot unfolds gradually, leaving us with pieces of information and lots of characterization. The story really takes off when we meet the characters again in East Berlin, 1966. The suspense and tension are palpable. Most impressively, the characters come to life and their relationships are front and center. At the core of this thriller is a tragic love story, but the screenwriters skillfully keeps everything under control. The movie falters somewhat when it returns to 1997 for the retribution. The third act isn't bad by itself, but the pacing and tension pale in light of what happened before.

John Madden's (Shakespeare in Love) direction is masterful, keeping us at the edges of our seats at all times. The editing serves the narrative structure superbly. The camerawork helps create the tension. And the production is solid. It's top-notch all the way.

Despite its relatively flat third act, The Debt is an outstanding character-driven thriller that should please fans of suspense and lovers of the human conditions.

Stars: Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington, Jesper Christensen
Director: John Madden
Writer: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Peter Straughan (based on the film Ha-Hov)
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating: R for violence and language
Running Time: 114 minutes


Script - 8
Performance - 9
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 8
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 8
Production - 8

Total - 8.0 out of 10.0

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