The Debt (Focus Features)
Rated R for some violence and language.
Starring Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington, Jesper Christensen, Romi Aboulafia.
Written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Peter Straughan, based on the film "Ha-Hov" by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum.
Directed by John Madden.
World War II and the atrocities of Nazi Germany often stir up thoughts of anger, patriotism, romanticism, heroism and for some, revenge. Filmmakers just can’t seem to leave the last great war alone even more than 65 years after it ended. Whether it’s an action, drama, dark comedy or even a superhero (Captain America) film, WWII seems to be an ever-flowing source of movie material. The U.S. release of The Debt, starring Helen Mirren as a former Nazi hunter proves there’s room for more.
Mirren stars as Rachel, an Israeli hero credited with hunting down and killing a Nazi war criminal named Dr. Vogel, a.k.a. "The Surgeon of Birkenau" (loosely based on real-life Nazi Josef Mengele), played by Jesper Christensen. The scene is set in 1997, as Rachel’s daughter is about to publish a book about her mother’s exploits. Rachel’s ex-husband and former fellow spy Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) now works as a government spy leader who keeps tabs on the third member of Rachel’s old trio, David (Ciarán Hinds). On the eve of the book release, Stephan witnesses David’s brutal suicide, which causes Rachel to ask a lot of questions and reminisce about the Dr. Vogel mission.
The middle of the film is spent in a flashback as the younger Rachel (Jessica Chastain) Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) go through the plot to capture the Nazi, now practicing as an East Berlin gynecologist in 1965. All three are holocaust survivors who lost most or all of their families in concentration camps at the hands of brutal men like Vogel. The plan goes off without a hitch until the moment when the trio fails in transporting Vogel to the west side of the Berlin Wall, which causes them to hide out in an apartment until they can make other arrangements. While holed up in the apartment, all three spies have discussions with the doctor, and form a troubled love triangle.
Eventually, the doctor escapes and the trio reports a version of events that ends with the Nazi being killed by Rachel. But did he really die?
The story concludes in 1997 as Rachel and Stephan find out that Vogel may still be alive in a Ukrainian hospital. Stephan (now wheelchair bound) dispatches Rachel to confirm the report and finish off the doctor if the report turns out to be valid.
The Debt begins as an intense, Nazi-hunting spy thriller, but evolves into more of a relationship drama, centered around the love triangle involving Rachel, who ends up in a loveless marriage with Stephan (that produces the daughter) as she and David pine for each other. The change in tone makes the film seem longer than its 114 minute running time, even with the big buildup to a "mystery" ending.
Mirren’s performance buoys The Debt from being too boring, as does Jessica Chastain playing the younger version of the same character. The other actors are adequate, even though Sam Worthington looks absolutely nothing like Ciarán Hinds. The same could be said about the other parings, although less noticeable.
Even with the switch in tone from spy hunt thriller to love drama, The Debt is a film worth seeing, as long as you don’t expect too much "James Bond" stuff.