With Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds, Jessica Chastain, Jesper Christensen; Running Time 114 minutes; Rated R (for some violence and language); Written by Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan; Directed by John Madden.
THE DEBT is a remake of an Israeli film that uses three Mossad agents on the trail of a Nazi war criminal in East Berlin in 1965 to tell us something about the life of a spy. Along the lines of stories by John LeCarré (rather than Ian Fleming), it suggests that a life of assuming fake identities and going through elaborate means to take covert action takes a terrible toll on the human soul. The goals of such a life may be righteous, but the means are not.
The story does not unfold in linear fashion. We first meet Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) in the 1990s, when her daughter has just written a book about the famous exploits of her former spy mother and her ex-husband Stephen Gold (Tom Wilkinson) and David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds). We get a flashback of how Nazi-in-hiding Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) tried to escape and how young Rachel (Jessica Chastain) bravely brought him down.
Yet all is not what it appears to be, especially when one of the spies commits suicide. We then go back to 1965 to witness the actual incident play out. We’re impressed with the derring-do of the agents but also with their humanity. These are human beings – not robots – and their goal is to see the criminal stand trial, not simply perform an execution. When he starts taunting them, it hurts precisely because he’s an amoral monster and they have emotions.
The story takes some surprising twists and turns, and the real question is whether the hunters’ first priority should be the truth, or something else. Is this about vengeance? National honor? Jewish pride? And if the truth is inconvenient, is it a luxury they can do without?
They try to deal with their actions and their mistakes, and how they have to live with the consequences. Precisely what that “debt” is of the title is open to question. Is to the victims of the Holocaust to bring war criminals to justice? Is it to their fellow spies to protect each other no matter what the consequences? Or is it to tell the truth, no matter how painful and humiliating it might be, and not mind who might suffer, even if they are innocent bystanders?
This is a solid cast from the veteran performers playing the old spies, to the young cast playing the same roles in 1965. It’s in the strength of the performances rather than in any visual similarities among the actors that we buy the older characters as carrying the burden of the actions of their younger selves. Helen Mirren, for example, is absent for a good portion of the film, but when she returns we feel we’ve been with her character all along.
Director John Madden is a competent craftsman who is only as good as his script. He had a great success with the Oscar-winning “Shakespeare In Love,” but not such good fortune with movies like “Ethan Frome” or “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.” Here he’s got a screenplay that doesn’t get bogged down in talk, but when the words flow we listen; there’s something at stake here.
“The Debt” is a serious spy story for summer’s end. For those who want some action but also something to chew on, this is a movie that will give you something to talk about long after the house lights come up.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.