Facing this monster nearly destroys all of them

The Debt

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            It is likely that you will be scared, without relief, for two hours if you decide to see The Debt. Director John Madden, his actors, and his crew have given us an expertly crafted espionage thriller that is a riveting adventure for the audience.
            But first, a few words about structure. The movie cuts back and forth between 1966 Berlin and 1997 Israel. In '66, a team of three Mossad agents plans to kidnap Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the "Surgeon of Birkenau," in order to return him to Israel for trial. In '97, one of the three has been celebrated for thirty years for her part in the operation.
            The characters are Rachel, Stephan, and David, all sharply honed in Mossad attack and defense techniques. Rachel is played in her 20s by Jessica Chastain, later by Helen Mirren, Stephan by Martin Csokas, then by Tom Wilkinson, David by Sam Worthington, later by Ciaran Hinds. The fast cuts to thirty years hence are confusing, but you'll get the hang of it because the actors - in gestures and emotions are effective reflections of their older and younger selves.
            The film opens with grim photographs of the surgeon's unspeakable medical experiments, giving us the why of the impending abduction. In their derelict apartment the three plan the intricacies of their mission. Despite their exacting plotting, a stranger on a train platform sends things awry and the team ends up with the prisoner, now bound and gagged, in their apartment for a terrible ten days.
            The heart of the film lies in the reactions of the characters to the moral dilemmas thrown at them by circumstance. Young, and older, they all react in tune with their characters, each an outgrowth of his younger self. But the surprises, none anticipated, test them mightily. A voice on the soundtrack intones "In the simple act of facing the monster, they helped vanquish it." But facing this monster nearly destroys all of them.
            All six actors have created their three characters in close collaboration. Helen Mirren, fearless as always and unadorned, is the perfect embodiment of Jessica Chastain's younger Rachel. In 1999 she is still strung tight from what can only be described as the erosion of her soul over thirty years' time. Tom Wilkinson and Martin Csokas are credible and consistent as Stephan, project leader, and Ciaran Hinds and Sam Worthington make David enormously sympathetic. Six actors create three lives damaged forever by a gruesome mission whose effects worsen over the years. The awful pain in Jessica Chastain's expressions is haunting and memorable. Hers was the most difficult acting assignment, and she is marvelous. Poor Jesper Christensen is so compelling as the monster he may well be known forevermore for this role. Flaws? A touch, though nothing fatal, of excessive final melodrama.
            Be warned to expect horrific violence and suspense. My own response when the lights went up was "Please, let me breathe again."


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