When you first see the triumvirate of main characters in The Debt, they are in the back of a military transport in 1966, having just returned home to Israel after a mission that would become legendary within the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. A voiceover will later tell how young the three agents were at the time, all in their twenties. As the plane’s loading ramp begins to lower, revealing the dignitaries who have gathered on the tarmac to welcome them back, the leader of the group reminds the others to breathe.
It’s good advice for the audience as well. In this taut thriller there are times you’ll find yourself holding your breath. This isn’t, though, a shoot’em-up car chase thriller. It is in the John LeCarre vein that deals with the moral consequences of actions as much as with the actions themselves. Churchill said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” The Debt (based on the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov) looks at the corrosive effects of those lies on the people who must maintain them.
In 1997, the daughter of Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), the female member of the 1966 team, publishes a book on the mission. At the launch party, the daughter, Sarah, tells the group that she couldn’t get her mother to talk to her at all about the operation. Instead she had to rely on her father Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson), the leader of the team and Rachel’s estranged husband, who is now in a high executive position within Mossad. Rachel still bears a visible scar on her cheek from the operation, while below the surface you can feel the scars on her soul. The day before the party she’d briefly seen the third member of the group, David Peretz (Ciaran Hinds), for the first time in years.
Sarah has her mother read a section of the book, and the movie jumps back to 1966 to show the story. On New Year’s Eve, we see the young Rachel ( Jessica Chastain) setting out pots to catch water dripping through the roof of the East Berlin apartment the team is using as a safehouse. On the floor of the living room, with tape binding his wrists and covering his mouth, is Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the former SS doctor the team was sent to kidnap and bring to Israel for trial ala Eichmann. When Rachel returns to the living room moments later, Vogel is not there. Suddenly he attacks Rachel violently, slicing her cheek with the piece of broken pottery he used to cut his bonds (the source of her scar). Rachel fights back but Vogel knocks her unconscious and flees down an outside staircase, heading for an alley to the main street and freedom. Rachel awakens, grabs a gun, and crawls to the top of the stairs. Aiming carefully, she fires, the sound of the shot lost in the rain and the celebratory fireworks that night. Vogel falls, dead.
After a completely unexpected plot twist, Rachel relives the whole story. (The movie isn’t told in linear time; it folds back on itself as it switches between 1966 and 1997, adding resonance to scenes when you see them a second time after learning the back story.) At the start of the mission, the younger Rachel walks across the border to East Berlin and is warmly greeted by the younger David (Sam Worthington) as a returning wife. It’s only when they’re out of earshot of the guards that they introduce themselves to each other for the first time. David takes Rachel to the apartment where Stephan (Marton Csokas) is waiting. Their target, Vogel, has been hiding in plain sight, living in East Berlin under the identity of Dr. Bernhardt, an ob-gyn. That is why Rachel was assigned to the mission, to pretend to be a local wife and become one of Bernhardt’s patients. The mission progresses as planned until a truly tense scene where it all begins to unravel.
Csokas plays the young Stephan as a totally self-assured extrovert who becomes brittle when the operation goes wrong. Over the past two years, in films like Avatar and Clash of the Titans, Worthington has established himself as a heroic leading man. Here, though, he plays against those expectations as the introverted, haunted David. You can see Hinds as an older version of Worthington’s David. Wilkinson’s performance also captures the seeds you see in the young Stephan that develop into the manipulative spymaster in 1997, unhumbled even though confined to a wheelchair after surviving a bombing. Christensen is excellent as Bernhard/Vogel, a calculating manipulator who plays on the team’s dynamics and poisons their relationship. Christensen had appeared in Casino Royale as the shadowy Mr. White who Bond introduces himself to at the end of the movie. Here he has a fuller, much more complex role, and embodies it beautifully, to the point of repugnancy.
The movie, though, belongs to the women. Jessica Chastain is in the middle of a breakout year, having appeared in The Tree of Life and The Help as well as in the soon-to-be-released Texas Killing Fields and Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus. Here she is unrecognizable as the gaunt, somber Rachel. The scene where she first visits Dr. Bernhardt (with a hidden camera that will be used to confirm his Vogel identity) is excruciating, since she must submit to the doctor’s examination to accomplish her task. The world weariness hinted at in Chastain’s performance grows to full bloom in Mirren’s older Rachel, who is forced back into the field by Stephan, even though she now doubts what they’d done on the mission in ’66. Mirren is believable as an espionage agent in the Le Carre mold, which is heartening to see. She has transcended the ageism that is endemic in the film industry.
John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) has crafted a fine film that works both as a thriller and a critique of the genre. In most action films the consequences of the action is glossed over or completely ignored. The Debt faces the consequences head on and shows them, like the scar on Rachel’s face. It’s not a movie that allows you an easy out, and it takes you to a richer, deeper conclusion.