Plot: 1965, three Mossad agents cross into East Berlin to apprehend a notorious Nazi war criminal. Thirty years later, the secrets the agents share come back to haunt them.
Director: John Madden
Writers: Matthew Vaughn (screenplay), Jane Goldman (screenplay), Peter Straughan (screenplay), Assaf Bernstein (film "Ha-Hov") & Ido Rosenblum (film "Ha-Hov")
Stars: Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Tom Wilkinson
The cost of lies
"The Debt" is a skillfully and elegantly shot film about the mission to apprehend "the surgeon of Birkenau"- Doktor Bernhardt, criminal responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. The mission is a task ensured to three people - Stephan (Marton Csokas and Tom Wilkinson), David (Sam Worthington and Ciarán Hinds) and Rachel (Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren). We see the story of how their mission turns out and then we jump ahead 30 years to the moment Rachel's and Stephan's daughter writes a book about her parents heroic mission. From the very first moments we sense there is more to the story, something that remained unsaid for three decades. Now Rachel, David and Stephan will have to pay the prize for what they did.
What makes the movie very interesting is that it shows more then your usual "catch the bad guy" movie. Yes, a good portion of the film is spent on agents' efforts to apprehend their target, but once they have him the best part of the movie begins - the part where the criminal tries to manipulate and break his captors. Since the three assigned to the task are so young and mostly inexperienced it's very easy for him to do. The best part comes when while being forced fed by David the prisoner tells him that the reason he thought Jews deserved to die was because it only took four guards to line them up and lead them to death, nobody resisted, not even when they took their children. The film is filled with strong moments like that, but the unimaginable cruelty of those words and the amazing ability Jesper Christensen has to stole the movie with just one scene really made the movie memorable for me.
Christensen who plays the doctor delivered the strongest performance, but the movie has brilliant acting all around. Rachel at 25 years old and the time of the mission is played by stunning Jessica Chastain, who has such strength and subtlety in her way of portraying characters it always shines through the film. Whether she is concerned wife ("Take Shelter"), loving mother ("The Tree of Life") or a lonely housewife ("The Help") Chastain always channels the kind of inner strength that is worth biggest admiration. Although Rachel does many things that vary from stupid to unreasonable she never ceases to be a good person, even when she does something that risks bringing shame on many people years later. The problem I had with the story was that such young agents were chosen to carry out very important mission - it's Rachel's first time in the field and although I can't imagine something like this actually happening in real life, Chastain is able to portray her character's determination to succeed along with her inability to deal with the sacrifices and risks of the task perfectly.
Older Rachel is played by Helen Mirren and I thought it was ingenious casting - although Chastain's facial features are so distinctive it would be almost impossible to find someone who looked like her and was 30 years older, the actresses' temperaments and acting styles compliment each other perfectly. Rachel who is both delicate, fierce and also naive loses that naivety and much of her delicateness later on in life which is perfectly shown by Mirren. Here is a woman, who had to live with a secret for 30 years, who had to deal with so much during her first important mission she broke couple of times in front of her prisoner and her colleagues and who was torn between two men for most of her life. Mirren is wonderful in the scenes where we see the underlying fear that the thing she did will come to light. It's not the fear of shame, but the fear of disappointing her close ones that will play the instrumental role in the film's ending.
Unfortunately, we have to deal with things how they are, which creates confusion for better part of the movie, since we are constantly going back and forth and many scenes include Mirren and Wilkinson only to turn into scenes with Chastain and Worthington. I really don't understand how anyone could let this happen, especially when having properly established characters is one of the essential things in a thriller that doesn't tell the story in chronological order.
Awful ending aside, the movie manages to hold viewer's interest and it's never clear what will happen next. The script isn't very strong, but it's the actors that make it work - especially Chastain and Hinds have the ability to hint at the things nobody tells us with a line or a scene shown in the movie. The line from the beginning "at least I quit drinking" and Chastain's sleepy eyes as she holds the drink and her trembling hands as she attempts to put mascara on her eyelashes tell us more about the consequences of the mission than most contrived lines in other spy films. Which is why I'm astonished such subtle moments and that horrible heavy handed ending were created by the same people.
"The Debt" is definitely worth seeing for strong performances by Christensen and Chastain and very skillful execution of the story, even if at times the plot requires you to go along with illogical things. It's one of those films that show important issues, interesting outcomes of characters' decisions and force you to wonder what would you do if you were in their place.