Many people will doubtless turn out to see The Debt purely on Mirren’s account; but by the end of the movie, many will walk out singing the praises of relative newcomer Jessica Chastain as well. The young Juilliard graduate, who is already having a bang-up year with good notices for her roles in Tree of Life and The Help, portrays the younger self of Mirren’s retired Mossad agent Rachel Singer with a convincing blend of fragility and nerve. I wasn’t running a stopwatch, but Chastain’s flashback scenes in the 1960s actually seem to take up more screentime than Mirren’s turns in the 1990s. So when Oscar time comes around, it’ll be tough to determine which of the two ought to be nominated for Best Actress and which for Best Supporting Actress.
Our story – directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and adapted by Jane Goldman, Peter Straughan and Matthew Vaughn from Assaf Bernstein’s 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov – begins in 1997, at a publication party in Tel Aviv for a book about Rachel Singer written by her daughter Sarah (Romi Aboulafia). A reluctant Rachel is prevailed upon to read aloud a passage about the 1965 caper in East Berlin for which she, Sarah’s father Stefan and a third young Mossad agent named David won international fame. Their assignment – to capture Dieter Vogel, a Mengelesque doctor infamous for his gruesome experiments on concentration camp inmates, and to sneak him across the border to face a war crimes tribunal in Israel – does not quite come off as planned, but the “Surgeon of Birkenau” is seen in flashback to be taken out of action.
Unfortunately, the book version of the undercover operation turns out not to be quite the way it really happened, and thereby hangs our tale. What makes it delicious is the angle that these are not stereotypical super-competent secret agents: They are good at what they do, and dedicated, but they are also human. They get stressed out; they make costly mistakes; sometimes they even make ethical choices that are unworthy of the moral high ground that they have staked out. And they have to live with the consequences of those choices, which include a public perception of heroism that, deep down, they know that they don’t really deserve.
The book party coincides with an unexpected visit from David (Ciarán Hinds), who had dropped out of sight for many years, bearing news to Rachel and her crippled ex-husband Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) that the trio’s house of cards is on the verge of collapse. The crisis provokes a much longer flashback sequence in which Rachel relives the true version of how she came to East Berlin as a young agent to train with a more experienced operative, the ambitious and overbearing Stefan – chillingly played as a young man by Marton Csokas – and to bait the trap for Vogel.
The Nazi doctor (Jesper Christensen) is leading as comfortable a bourgeois life as can be had in East Germany in the 1960s, masquerading as a gynecologist called Dr. Bernhardt. Pretending to be married to young David (Sam Worthington), Rachel consults Bernhardt for infertility problems. She proves herself a worthy spy, but her interactions with the suspicious doctor are the beginning of a psychological cat-and-mouse game that does not end when she successfully effects his kidnapping.
The most powerful sequence in The Debt is the long, tense imprisonment of Vogel by the three agents in their dark, claustrophobic, leaky apartment. Rachel’s cover has been blown during a bungled attempt to smuggle Vogel into West Germany by train, so she cannot leave the flat and becomes progressively more desperate to escape the constant company of the chatty and manipulative doctor.
It’s always a challenge for filmmakers (and actors) to find a way to portray a Nazi “monster” as a character with more than one dimension, and Christensen really shines, in a charmingly diabolical sort of way, in his one-on-one scenes with both Chastain and Worthington. Amidst his anti-Semitic taunts, he raises legitimate questions with which even non-Nazis, and survivors themselves, have had to wrestle in the postwar years, such as why there was so little resistance to the perpetration of the Holocaust. He manages to provoke the cool, controlled David into striking him and wears Rachel down to a brittle, self-doubting stub of her adventurous former self. The fact that there is a very awkward love triangle of sorts between Rachel and her two male counterparts doesn’t help, and we cringe as the idealistic co-conspirators deteriorate into a testy cabal of mutual blame, recrimination and jealousy.
Only Stefan – who lacks the emotional investment in the mission of Rachel and David, both of whom lost loved ones in the Holocaust – never loses his cool bluffness around Vogel. He even torments the prisoner with renditions of “Deutschland über Alles” on the piano, and tells David that Vogel “isn’t a human being.” (Hmmm...where have we heard that refrain before?) We come to see that Stefan is a bully, a more dilute version of the superior, controlling attitude exemplified by Nazism; he just happens to be working for the good guys. It’s no surprise that his marriage to Rachel doesn’t last long – or that he is the one who, to protect his career trajectory, insists on a pact of secrecy among the three when Plan B truly goes awry.
The Debt is an intelligent, engaging espionage thriller, but its tone is mostly dark and downbeat; it won’t appeal to those who require nonstop pyrotechnic action or martini-drinking spies who never miss their mark. Although Mirren seems to be the perennial winner of late of those silly audience polls for titles like “Best Body in Hollywood,” she’s not showing off her buff 66-year-old chassis in slinky evening gowns in this grim story, either; she lets herself look older than her years, worn by guilt and bearing a rather nasty scar on her cheek from that confrontation with Vogel. Rachel Singer is no female James Bond, but you still wouldn’t want to be her antagonist – any more than you would want to contest Helen Mirren for her next Oscar.