John Madden’s “The Debt” is a potent, mature espionage thriller. An efficient remake of a 2007 Israeli film, Madden’s version is creepy and interesting, but not the kind of movie that action fans will embrace.
Spanning decades, “The Debt” centers around a trio of Mossad agents who embark on a secret mission in 1965 to capture and bring to trial a former NAZI known as the Surgeon of Birkenau. When something goes wrong with the mission, a debt must be paid years later. Following the three agents from 1965 to 1997, we see how their lives are shaped by the decisions and promises of the past.
You have to hand it to Helen Mirren, she’s got an “it” factor that makes her the sexiest 66 year old out there. And this is not an understatement. In “The Debt,” as the 1997 version of Rachel she has no romantic scenes, but she is none-the-less a romantic presence in a once smoldering love triangle. In 1965, the lovely Jessica Chastain plays Rachel, an agent trained in the ways of Mossad but inexperienced somewhat in the ways of men and women. The casting works well. And the cold persona that Mirren adopts for the 1997 version of Rachel makes complete sense. A vicious scar on Rachel’s face acts as a constant reminder of her time with the Mossad, and years of living with a dark secret have dramatically affected Rachel—eaten away at her personality leaving nothing but the bitter parts. And Mirren inhabits the character with ease. It is not a stretch to say that absent an actor of her talent and reputation, the movie would not have worked. Helen Mirren is the reason to see “The Debt.”
To be fair, the movie makes more than a few missteps that rush to the creepy conclusion. There is much consternation and bickering on display and moments of action are sparse. But Madden’s deliberate and sure-footed direction makes the sincere but plodding storyline consistently of interest. I did want to see what the debt was and how it would ultimately be paid. But without Mirren and a cast of impressive acting talent including Tom Wilkinson and “Avatar’s” Sam Worthington, I doubt anyone would give the film a second look.