Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sins of Decades Past Come to Collect in 'The Debt'

Rachel (Helen Mirren), David (Tom Worthington) and Stephan (Marton Csokas) train for an important mission in "The Debt." Photos courtesy of Focus Features.

TERRIBLE secrets haunt, cripple, stifle. Often, they are devastating and deadly. Eventually – almost without fail – they come to light.

Yet, it is human nature to keep them. Self-preservation compels us to do so as it does three Mossad (Israel’s CIA) agents in “The Debt.” The film opens nationwide tomorrow.

In 1965, Rachel, Stephan and David (Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington) are assigned to retrieve the Nazi war criminal, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) aka the Surgeon of Birkenau, and bring him back to Tel Aviv to answer for his misdeeds during World War II. Vogel is alive, well and thriving in East Berlin. (See videos at: http://www.focusfeatures.com/the_debt/videos)

Rachel (Helen Mirren) learns from Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) that she must conclude their unfinished business in "The Debt."

“The Debt,” adapted from the 2007 Israeli film, “Ha-Hov,” is a taut espionage thriller that is a throwback to classic spy films of the '60s and '70s i.e., “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” “The Day of the Jackal,” “Three Days of the Condor.”

Rachel, on her first mission, joins her two comrades in East Berlin where they train, plot and plan. Posing as a young wife having trouble conceiving, Rachel is the bait that is used to catch gynecologist Vogel. All is going well; they have confirmed his identity; Rachel has gained Vogel’s trust or rather she has overcome his natural suspicion. When a former Nazi is hiding in plain sight he must be careful of all strangers, especially Jews with foreign accents.

The agents’ careful plan hits a snag, though, when East German guards figure that something is amiss as the trio attempts to put Vogel on a train to West Germany, forcing them to improvise. Instead of seeing Vogel off, they take him back to the dilapidated flat they share until they can get him out of the country.

David (Ciarán Hinds) and Rachel (Helen Mirren) meet for the first time in years in "The Debt."

Vogel is a wily creature, manipulating and provoking his way into an escape. In the face of this colossal failure the three agents immediately begin to assign blame to each other, then quickly realize that they must work together if they are to survive. They make a secret pact and in the process become heroes in their country with many trimmings that accompany such status. Thirty years later their past is nipping at their heels. All three (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds) stand to lose colossally, lest they act.

“The Debt” toggles between the past of 1965-66 and the present of 1997, and director John Madden handles the transition without losing an ounce of intrigue or suspense. At any moment in the past the cover of Rachel or one of the others will be blown. At any moment in the present either of the heroes may break from the burden of the three-decade-old secret they’ve been carrying around like a lead weight.

Rachel’s burden seems the heaviest because she gets most of the credit for saving the day. Her and Stephan's daughter, Sarah (Romi Aboulafia), is immensely proud of her and has immortalized her exploits in a future best-seller. Ringleader Stephan is seemingly the least affected by the secret – on the surface, that is. David, already a tortured soul, buckles under the weight of the secret.

Former spy Rachel (Helen Mirren) involuntarily comes out of a 30-year retirement to embark on a covert mission in Ukraine in "The Debt."

In “The Debt” the tension in the air is palpable. It is so thick that a knife won’t cut it. It requires a chainsaw. HM gets top billing but the film is an ensemble piece. The “The Debt” succeeds because both sets of actors convey urgency, dread, fatalism with the calm and aplomb of a bomb detonator.

Those calm exteriors beautifully camouflage the powder kegs inside. That is what makes “The Debt” an on-the-edge-of-your-seat thriller.

”The Debt” is rated R for some violence and language.

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