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THE DEBT movie review

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Jessica Chastain continues her breakout summer playing a Mossad agent in search of a Nazi war criminal.

4 star rating

Spy games are often the domain of men named Bourne and Bond but The Debt director John Madden places the spotlight on a troubled female Mossad agent named Rachel Singer (played by Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain at different times in the character’s life) and she’s as fascinating and tough as any male spy.

Madden and screenwriters Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan distinguish The Debt from other espionage thrillers by adding a strong moral element to its story, what one might call a “woman’s touch,” and the results are tense and dramatically rich. Sure, there’s plenty of action and brutal hand-to-hand combat in The Debt. There’s also something extra, themes involving guilt and false heroism that make The Debt better than many other espionage adventures.

An elderly man in a Ukraine hospital claims to be notorious Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the Surgeon of Birkenau. The problem is that Singer and her fellow Mossad veterans Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) and David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds) took credit for killing Vogel in East Berlin forty-six years ago and have been celebrated as heroes ever since.

Under threat of being exposed a liar, Singer remembers the mission and the movie flashes back to 1965 East Berlin as the novice Mossad agent (Chastain) and her young colleagues Stephen (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) plan to find and capture Vogel, who’s working as a obstetrician under a new name, and return him for trial in Israel.

Back in 1997 Tel Aviv, as Singer’s daughter celebrates the publication of her non-fiction book celebrating the 1965 capture of Vogel, Singer returns from retirement and travels to the Ukraine to finish her mission once and for all.

Mirren captures the heavy guilt of someone considered a hero by her country but who knows her triumph is a lie. She’s also plenty tough as a Mossad veteran who still knows how to fight. Tom Wilkinson is cold and calculating as Stephan, the Israeli spymaster (and former husband) who pulls Singer out of retirement and sends her on a final mission. Ciarán Hinds makes great use of his hound-dog looks as David, the one agent who’s struggled the hardest with the guilt.

Madden brings the film a boost in excitement during its 1965 scenes as the young Mossad agents plan for an elaborate kidnapping at Vogel’s medical practice involving a fake heart attack and ambulance.

the debt helen mirren

Madden increases the tension in the flashback scenes with slight touches including the scrape of a straight razor against the Vogel’s cheek, a broken bowl that reveals how Rachel receives her distinctive facial scar and an examination scene with Singer that’s every bit as creepy as the time Dustin Hoffman’s character settled into a dentist’s chair in John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man.

Sam Worthington (Avatar) is moody and complex as the young David, a Mossad agent who’s torn between his affection for Rachel and his loyalty to his country and its goal of capturing Nazi war criminals.

Marton Csokas shows appropriate swagger as Stephan, the leader of the team who refuses to return to Tel Aviv a failure.

Jesper Christensen, best known as Mr. White in the recent Bond movies Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, is sinister as the Nazi war criminal.

Still, it’s Jessica Chastain, who’s enjoying a spotlight summer thanks to her roles as a repressed housewife in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a supporting role in The Help, and her upcoming apocalyptic drama Take Shelter, who dazzles throughout The Debt as the young Singer. Ferocious in her combat skills but frightened around her Nazi captive, Chastain makes Singer the most fragile assassin in movie history. In a genre known for its car chases, elaborate stunts and brutal fight scenes, Chastain also helps remind us that a spy drama is only as interesting as its spies.


Distributor: Focus Features

Director: John Madden

Scriptwriter: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan

Cinematographer: Ben Davis

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

Production Designer: Jim Clay

Running Time: 104 minutes

Producers: Miramax Films, Marv Films, Pioneer Pictures

Rating: Rated R

Release Date: August 31, 2011 


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