The Debt – Review



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A strong, albeit stripped-down, Cold War thriller

The Debt is not a complex spy thriller. It doesn’t have a plot that leaves the audience dangling on every twist (okay, maybe just one) or turn. What it does offer is a tale of espionage anchored by one female character, though played by two different actresses.

Based on the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov, the story revolves around events in 1966 and 1997. The Debt opens in the present and we are transported back to the past as Helen Mirren reads a written account of her time as a Mossad agent. A key incident of a prisoner making his escape is shown. Later in the film an alternative version of the incident is shown with one crucial difference. But only one of the versions is the truth. It is this misdirection that strengthens the plot when the twist finally occurs.

In the mid-‘60s, three Mossad agents are stationed in East Berlin for a secret mission. The mission involves capturing Nazi war criminal Bernhardt (Jesper Christensen), the “Butcher of Birkenau,” and transporting him to Israel for public trial. Stephan (Marton Csokas) is the team leader, while David (Sam Worthington) and Rachel (Jessica Chastain) make up the other two members of the unit. Of course the mission doesn’t go according to plan, leaving the three to improvise a solution. Close to thirty years later, these three would reunite again, but the means is by no means amicable. Stephen (now Tom Wilkinson) has no intentions of having a thirty-year secret revealed; David (now Ciaran Hinds) has thirty years of guilt he wants to excise; and Rachel (now Helen Mirren) may become a field operative once again.

Roughly two-thirds of The Debt transpires in Cold War East Berlin, and it during this time where John Madden’s film is the most engrossing. Not to take anything from the other third, set in 1997, but the mounting pressure of the situation is less urgent. The capture of the Butcher and subsequent failed attempt to transport him out of country are well staged, but it is the scenes in the safe house with the Butcher held captive that are the most exciting. The way Jesper Christensen, who played middleman for the terrorist organization Quantum in both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, is able to break down his captors, specifically Rachel, pensively is similar to Dr. Hannibal Lecter probing Agent Starling about her upbringing. The scenes between Bernhardt and Rachel crackle with tension, as the Butcher shows that he is the one in control – able to get to them psychologically – not the three Mossad agents.

Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and Tom Wilkinson may be the marketable faces of this Cold War thriller but audiences will most likely be talking about the actress who plays young Rachel, Jessica Chastain. Once again, Chastain delivers another strong performance. She may wind up being this year’s Jude Law in the sheer number of new releases – this is the third of six movies for Chastain this year – but each of her performances have been superb thus far. The hot-and-cold chemistry she has with Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington adds to the relationship dynamic, and it carries over in situations after the mission.

Matthew Vaughn and his writing collaborator Jane Goldman, who earlier in the summer had the Cold War-set film X-Men: First Class, penned the adaptation, to which Peter Straughan also contributed. Interesting to note is that Straughan also wrote this year’s cinematic adaptation to John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, another tale of espionage set during the Cold War.

The appeal of The Debt lies in its rich atmosphere and suspense. It’s not exactly the energetic thriller the ads make it out to be; the film’s edge-of-your-seat thrills are reserved to but a few sequences. The Debt is more about the intrigue that carries over from one fateful decision, and its overriding affect on the relationships between our three main characters. Also, heroism and holding on to that acclaim is an underlying theme that offers a nice discussion topic once the movie concludes.

As far as the film’s shortcomings, it resides with the large gap of time. Had the thirty years been shortened to ten or fifteen years a greater consistency would have existed. As it is, The Debt is just a good thriller, and not a great one. Still, for older audiences it is a worthwhile watch, because good entertainment for grownups is short supply right now.


Director: John Madden
Notable Cast: Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington, Jesper Christensen
Writer(s): Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, based on the film Ha-Hov by Assaf Bernstein & Ido Rosenblum

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