‘The Debt’ (2011) review: Truth, and all its shades of gray

‘The Debt’ a thrilling take on Cold War spy drama

UPDATED – “The Debt” bounces between a paranoid East Berlin of 1965 and a sunny Tel Aviv 32 years later, plays mind games with the truth of the past and delves into the ethical and psychological dilemmas simmering beneath a basic story of good versus evil.

Three Mossad agents are deployed on a secret mission in a perpetually cloud-covered Cold War Berlin to capture a Nazi fugitive, Dieter Vogel. The cerebrated story of their return becomes the subject of a book written in 1997 by Sarah Gold (Romi Aboulafia), the daughter of two of the famed agents: Rachel Singer (a stoic Helen Mirren, “The Queen”) and her ex-husband, Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson, “Michael Clayton”). Rachel begrudgingly basks in the spotlight of heroism displayed during her agent days: Not only did she stare down her sadistic opponent, nicknamed the Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen, “Casino Royale”), she has the strength of will to shoot him dead when he tries to escape.

However, through intense flashbacks and roundabout conversations, the story of Rachel’s courage begins to alter, even erode. Then walks in the third member of the group, David Peretz (Ciaran Hinds, “Munich”), seeming to be on the edge of a mental breakdown. And back to the past we go (there’s a lot of bouncing around here), slowly becoming captivated by a backstory full of surprising secrets and unintended consequences.

In Berlin, David is played by Sam Worthington (“Avatar”), Stephan by Marton Csokas (“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”) and Rachel by Jessica Chastain (“The Tree of Life”). Yes, it proves difficult to imagine Chastain, a talented actress in her own right, growing into the regal Mirren, but she aptly provides “The Debt” with its emotive center while still maintaining enough gruff to view her as a ruthless agent.

Rachel’s counterparts, however, fall into more standard characters. David is quiet, introspective — beset by the death of his parents during the war — while Stephan is ambitious and cynical. As so often befalls such situations, a complicated love triangle ensues.

The agents’ assiduously crafted plans are gunned down. Vogel’s kidnapping goes haywire and he instead becomes a prisoner in captors’ dingy apartment.

He employs knowledge gained as Rachel’s gynecologist — she posed as a patient in order verify his identity — and horribly anti-Semitic barbs to tear down Rachel’s and David’s pysches, leaving them still scarred three decades later. Those scars, however, may emanate from long-held guilt over a truth they’ve hidden ever since. The lies lace together intimately, you become both suffocated and thrilled as the globe-trotting undertaking plays out.

One jarring issue, though: “The Debt,” directed by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) and a remake of the 2007 Israeli thriller by Assaf Bernstein, is basically set into three acts; by the third the story is lifeless, even as it reaches its gripping sequitur.

Still, “The Debt,” proving again that truth can shaded and illuminated by the conventionalities of the present, leaves you wondering just how free the truth will set you.

Four secretive stars out of five.

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Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington are Israeli intelligence agents trying to kidnap a former Nazi concentration camp doctor from 1960s East Berlin in "The Debt." (Photo credit: AP photo by Focus Features, Laurie Sparham)

Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington are Israeli intelligence agents trying to kidnap a former Nazi concentration camp doctor from 1960s East Berlin in “The Debt.” (Photo credit: AP photo by Focus Features, Laurie Sparham)

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One response to “‘The Debt’ (2011) review: Truth, and all its shades of gray

  1. Pingback: Box office: ‘The Help’ powers through Labor Day « Silver Screening·

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