By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
The Debt earns our gratitude.
It’s a remake of a 2007 Israeli thriller about a legendary hunt for a notorious Nazi war criminal that examines that ever-elusive boundary between legend and truth.
The espionage drama begins in 1997 as shocking news reaches retired Mossad (the Israeli CIA) secret agents Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) about former colleague David (Ciaran Hinds), with whom they worked on a previous mission several decades ago.
The journalist daughter of facially scarred Rachel is in Tel Aviv to promote a book she has just written about her mother’s Nazi-hunting exploits, over twenty years after World War II, when she and her two colleagues hunted down, abducted, and apparently killed infamous Nazi doctor Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), known as the “Butcher of Birkenau” for the horrific genetic experiments he performed, and who was then living and practicing obstetrics in East Berlin.
But improbable as it seems, Rachel finds out now, thirty years later, that Vogel may still be alive in the Ukraine, where a mental hospital patient is claiming to be him.
So we flash back to 1966 to see younger versions of Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stefan (Marton Csokas), and David (Sam Worthington) perform their demanding mission, built around Rachel’s visits to gynecologist Vogel’s office, ostensibly to treat her infertility.
With a scheme as impassioned, complicated, and tense as the one the trio of spies has cooked up, things do go awry (and, people being people, a romantic triangle develops among them, which doesn’t exactly help them stay focused on the task) so that their mission will have to become part of history with several of its secrets remaining just that.
Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Proof, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) keeps his thriller urgent and breathless most of the way, in a manner that recalls the Bourne trilogy and Steven Spielberg’s Munich.
But although he really takes to the thriller genre, Madden makes the romantic entanglements much more than an afterthought; that is, he seems to know just when to slow things down and just when to speed them up.
The two-time-period screenplay by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan must satisfy our desire for justice as well as our curiosity about the interpersonal dynamics involved. And as the past and the present catch up with each other, the film does just that, ratcheting the suspense up to an excruciating level several times.
If the third act doesn’t quite exceed or even fulfill our expectations — and, sad to say, it doesn’t — we can blame it on the superior nature of the first two acts.
The ensemble cast is mostly fine, and we would expect no less from the likes of stalwarts Mirren and Wilkinson. The exception is wooden Worthington, who rarely makes a big-screen impression at all despite his level of charisma-free stardom (Avatar, Terminator Salvation, Clash of the Titans) and here once again brings little if anything to the table.
The result is that we really don’t buy that his David is the young version of Hinds’ mature version.
But the splendid if not astonishing chameleon Jessica Chastain takes a third 2011 step (after The Tree of Life and The Help) toward what appears to be a rapid rise to superstardom.
So we’ll spy on 3 stars out of 4 for a powerfully gripping and fascinating thriller. The Debt is paid in full.