'The Debt' review / Susan Granger
Published 1:30 pm, Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Combining the suspense of a political thriller with international espionage and a smattering of social commentary about the fallibility of our veneration of heroes, this is a fascinating remake of the 2007 Israeli film "Ha-Hov."
Back in 1965, three young, idealistic Mossad operatives -- Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) - were dispatched to East Berlin to capture a notorious Nazi war criminal, Dr. Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the "Butcher of Birkenau," and transport him to Israel to stand trial for his cruel experiments on Jews in concentration camps.
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Skip ahead to 1997, as their triumphant exploits are recounted in a book, proudly written by Rachel's daughter (Romi Aboulafia). But now-retired, facially-scarred Rachel (Helen Mirren) is obviously uncomfortable occupying the spotlight at the publication's celebratory festivities. She's stunned when her wheelchair-bound ex-husband, Stephan (Tom Wilkinson),informs her that their distraught, melancholy colleague, David (Ciaran Hinds), has just killed himself and that a haunting, guilty secret they've hidden for many years is about to be revealed. It seems that a mysterious man claiming to be Dr. Vogel has surfaced in a mental hospital in the Ukraine and one of them must discover the truth before an embarrassing and damaging story can be published by an investigative journalist.
Adapted by Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, it's directed by John Madden ("Proof," "Shakespeare in Love") and propelled by Helen Mirren's stunning performance. Did you know that in the 1960s, six months after the Six-Day War, Mirren went to Israel with a Jewish boyfriend and worked at Ha'On, a small agricultural kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee, close to the Jordanian border?
Equally impressive is chameleon-like Jessica Chastain ("The Tree of Life," "The Help"). Problem is: it's difficult to believe that Sam Worthington ("Avatar," "Terminator Salvation," "Clash of the Titans") could have matured into Ciaran Hinds, which causes a bit of confusion, making one wonder who's who in the two time-period romantic/interpersonal entanglements.
Nevertheless, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Debt" pays off with a compelling 8.