THE DEBT. Starring: Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds, and Jesper Christensen. Directed by John Madden. Rated M (Mature themes and violence). 93 min.
This drama-thriller is a remake of the 2007 Israeli film of the same name by Assaf Bernstein.
In 1966, a young Mossad agent, Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), arrives in East Berlin to join her fellow agents, David Peretz (Sam Worthington) and Stefan Gold (Marton Csokas). Their task is to capture Dieter Vogel, the “Surgeon of Birkenau”, who was responsible for terrible medical experiments on Jews during World War II, and to bring him back to Israel to face justice. In a daring scheme, Rachel becomes a patient at Vogel’s clinic, and convinces his wife that Vogel (Jesper Christensen) has had a heart attack after she injects him with a sedative. Stefan and David pose as ambulance men to spirit Vogel away. Things go terribly wrong and Vogel escapes, after taunting his captors cruelly. Rachel, David and Stefan return to Israel as heroes, and claim fraudulently that Vogel has been killed.
Some 30 years later in Israel, Rachel and Stefan are married, but emotionally estranged, and Rachel, Stefan and David are being venerated for what they have done. Rachel’s daughter, Sarah, has published a book based on the account of her mother about what happened, but the book is based on the lie that Vogel is dead. David (an older Ciaran Hinds) commits suicide, rather than face the moral consequences of Vogel being found alive, and Stefan (an older Tom Wilkinson), David and Rachel have all been haunted by not telling the truth. Information comes through that Vogel is an inmate in an asylum in Kiev, and Rachel travels to Kiev to kill him to make up for what she didn’t do before, and to avoid her daughter’s humiliation. The person reputed to be Vogel turns out to be a demented impostor, but Rachel recognises Vogel as one of the other patients in the asylum. In a melodramatic turn, she confronts him, is injured by Vogel, and kills him with a poisoned syringe. Rachel has left a note that is discovered by a journalist, who will reveal the truth to everyone of what actually happened, which is something she now desperately wants.
The movie’s plot twists and turns, but the film maintains tension as an intelligent espionage thriller that poses significant moral questions. It is a solid thriller, backed by a stellar cast. The film doesn’t deal a lot in the character development of Rachel, Stefan and David, as it moves backwards and forwards a little confusingly from 1965 to 1997, but it is a morally challenging movie in that the past is constantly reinterpreted in terms of the moral obligations of the present. We are asked continually to ponder the notion of what constitutes heroism, but there are wider issues. What is contemporary society’s attitude to criminals caught in the grips of a malevolent culture, and is the killing of someone, who is genuinely evil, ever justified by the motive of revenge? Rachel, David and Stefan, as Mossad agents, were put through torment in 1966, and the film asks whether personal truth more than 30 years later is worth the cost. These are all issues, which are morally provoking.
The acting in the movie is very good, though one is distracted by the older versions of Rachel, Stefan and David not looking a lot like their younger selves. Mirren brings her usual sensitivity to the complexities of her character. The sexual attraction of both David and Stefan to her is overshadowed a little by Vogel, who emerges in the film as a person rather reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter. However, the cast collectively plays out very well the complex ethical choices in the film’s twisting plot.
To some extent this is Hollywood re-working again the horrors of the Holocaust. However, leaving the looseness of the film’s plot aside this well-directed film holds attention in a commanding fashion, and it raises weighty moral issues that are worth pondering.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out November 10, 2011.