Debt, The: John Madden’s Remake of Israeli Thriller, Starring Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain

With a riveting story to tell, John Madden’s “The Debt” is a compelling political thriller grounded in a specific reality, but it’s also effective as a relevant drama about reputation-building and the making of political heroes and myths.

The screenplay, penned by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, is a remake of the 2007 Israeli film of the same name by Assaf Bernstein.

The film’s greatest asset is its superlative cast, headed by Helen Mirren, who at this phase of her career can do no wrong, Ciarán Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson, and a cast of younger actors who play the youthful versions of the above roles.

World premiering at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival (in the Gala section), the film (originally a Miramax production), has been pushed back a number of times and is now open theatrically by Focus Features August 31.

Set in 1966, the film tells the story of three young agents of the Mossad (Israel’s noted and notorious Intelligence Institute), sent on a highly secretive and dangerous mission to capture and kill a Nazi War criminal, Vogel (Jesper Christensen).

Told in a series of flashbacks, the tale actually opens in 1997, during a celebration of a book published by Rachel’s daughter. Rachel (splendidly played by Mirren) is a venerable member of the trio of Israeli spies sent to find and capture a Nazi, and the book is a chronicle of this triumphant mission.

Nonetheless, it turns out that there is more to the saga and to its triangle of characters than what Rachel’s family knows, or what is public knowledge. It soon becomes clear that he trio is hiding “something,” and that something is haunting them and bears traumatic effects on each one of them.

Stephan is deeply disturbed, and Rachel (Mirren) and David (Ciaran Hinds) are distant to each other during the book launch, barely acknowledging each other. What’s going on? Shouldn’t they be ecstatic at the public recognition that their courageous heroism is receiving?

It turns out that a man claiming to be the presumably dead Nazi has suddenly surfaced in the Ukraine, and one of the former agents must go back undercover to seek out the truth, and stop the story from being published—or else it would cause embarrassment and damages to the individuals and the Mossad as an institution.

A good section of the movie details the lives of the trio in Berlin circa 1965 and the complex group dynamics. The beautiful Rachel is the only female and she is desired by Stephan (Sam Worthington of “Avatar” fame) and David, leading to peculiar romantic triangle.

Complicating matters is the fact that Rachel and David must behave as a married couple, which creates a tension between the two as they resist the chemistry between each other.

Pretending to be a married woman who tries to conceive a child, Rachel visits the offices of the Nazi doctor, who had conducted experiments on Jews in concentration camps, attempting to gather information. After a physical struggle, she injects a fluid into him, which renders him unconscious. David and Stephan, impersonating EMS workers, then take him away in an ambulance into captivity, where he’s kept alive.

Unaware of Vogel’s command of English, they speak freely and in the process reveal some confidential plans. No more could be told by way of contents as this is a thriller. Suffice is to say that the trio differs in approach to the captive Nazi, how (brutally) to treat him, what to do with him. This is disclosed in their varied interactions with the Nazi, as they work in shifts taking care of his basic needs.

The saga then cuts back to three decades later, finding Rachel as an older woman benefiting from the glory that the mission had acquired. But in actuality she lives in perpetual fear and anxiety that the truth might be revealed at any given moment. And indeed, things come to a breaking point, when David tells Rachel that the story is soon going to get published by some Ukrainian journalist.

Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”), who’s a reliable craftsman, directs the story at a brisk pace, moving it more or less smoothly between the past and the present.  Benefiting from a story that’s original, unusual, unpredictable,  he’s able to build and sustain suspense from first frame to last.  Each of the two different time periods, the 1960s and the 1990s, contains shocking revelations about personalities, motivations, and the intersection of personal and political events.

Opinions will differ as to which of the historical sub-tales is more interesting (I favor the second, modern era), but Madden grabs our attention early on and he doesn’t let go.

Large part of the action takes place within the “safe” apartment on a crumbling East Berlin block, which was built as a 360-degree environment, following the script’s dictates to create a genuinely claustrophobic atmosphere for the trio of youngsters and their captive. Moreover, to enhance authenticity and tension, principal photography was carried out in chronological order, and the shooting in sequence enabled the actors to shape their characterizations more gradually and more realistically than is the norm (most movies are shot out of sequence)

Both text and subtext are significant in “The Debt.”  The movie makes you think about how the political culture of every nation, especially a young, roubled, and complex one like Israel’s, is engaged in the process of creating political heroes and cultural myths, which may or may not correspond to the factual reality.  Each of the three characters is torn by internal conflicts and moral dilemmas, feeling the burden of responsibility not jut to themselves and to their loved ones but also to the country at large.


Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren)

Young Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain)

David (Ciarán Hinds)

Young David (Sam Worthington)

Stephan (Tom Wilkinson)

Young Stephan (Marton Csokas)

Vogel (Jesper Christensen)