The espionage thriller begins in 1997, as shocking news reaches retired Mossad secret agents Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) about their former colleague David (Ciarán Hinds). All three have been venerated for decades by their country because of the mission that they undertook back in 1965, when the trio (portrayed, respectively, by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington) tracked down Nazi war criminal Vogel (Jesper Christensen) in East Berlin. At great risk, and at considerable personal cost, the team's mission was accomplished - or was it? The suspense builds in and across two different time periods, with startling action and surprising revelations. Written by
In John Madden's The Debt, three young strangers in 1965 East Berlin seek to find and capture The Surgeon of Birkenau, a ruthless doctor that performed horrific acts on imprisoned Jews during World War II.
The threesome are played by Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas and Jessica Chastain who embody David, Stefan and Rachel respectively in their younger years. Ciarán Hinds, Tom Wilkinson and Helen Mirren play the characters when the film switches between the 1960's to the end of 1999.
The film flips between the thirty year time frame liberally in the first third of the film. We watch as the young David, Stefan and Rachel welcome us to 'The Mission' and follow them through the intricate plot details that, if all goes correctly, will bring the doctor to across the Berlin wall to face trial for his actions. Young Rachel will pose as a patient to gain access to the doctor and when confirmation is received, she will use her special training to subdue the surgeon so that Stefan and David can transport him alive to West Berlin and then back to Israel.
But things don't go according to plan and soon the three are forced to remain in hiding with their prisoner until they can determine a new course of action. It's while cooped up in their apartment that the doctor begins to use mind games in an effort to gain the psychological advantage while revealing the true evil behind his words.
In more modern times, we learn that Rachel and Stefan had both married and divorced. Their daughter has written a book about the abduction and the days that followed in the apartment detailing her parents as heroes to the cause.
But recent developments and an unexpected suicide by David leave Stefan and Rachel in the same position they were 30 years ago. And one must travel back to Europe to seek out someone who claims to be the original Surgeon of Birkenau.
John Madden is no stranger to award winning dramas. Shakespeare in Love won out over Saving Private Ryan and Ethan Frome was a well received romance back in 1993. Madden works the camera like a maestro in effortlessly weeding the story through multiple decades. The film never loses focus and relies on its strengths namely the performances of Mirren, Csokas and Chastain to carry the heavy plot line forward.
However, in the final acts, the story gets a little lost. Watching Mirren head to Kiev, Ukraine was a leap of faith and political, social and moral values begin to choke the life out of what was a better than average thriller up to that point.
With the conclusion of The Debt being too heavy handed to maintain the thin weight of the first ¾, The Debt eventually fails to be the film that showed award promise in the trailers. We are not suggesting that The Debt is a bad film, but its final reel wilt does take away from the execution of its predecessors.
Mirren may still get award recognition come December (the film is officially released December 29th), but it may be a long shot to see The Debt as one of the Best Picture nominees.
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