It's 1997 and Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) and David Peretz (Ciaran Hinds) have been holding onto a secret for 30 years. Now that secret might be coming out. Rachel's daughter has a written a book about her mother's exploits as Mossad agent in 1965, working with Stephan and David as part of a three-man team to bring a Nazi war criminal to justice. What they told though happened isn't the truth, and now after 30 years of inner turmoil, it may finally be time for that hidden truth to reveal itself. What will be the price? At what cost can their struggles be revealed?
A smart, well-written thriller. They seem few and far between actually arriving in theaters, don't they? Director John Madden has done it though with this thriller, crafting a story that weaves in between 1965/66 and 1997 fairly effortlessly. Early in the story, we're thrown for a loop as an audience, seeing what we believed happened only to find out later that it wasn't based in the truth. The East Berlin setting of 1965 is dark and gloomy (appropriate) with the flashback occupying much of the movie's middle portions only to bounce back to 1997. The look of the movie is great, and as a whole, it's more content in telling a human, interesting and still entertaining story than getting wrapped up in gunplay and explosions thankfully.
A surprising problem though is the division of the story between the two separate years. In the 1965 portion, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas play Rachel, David and Stephan. All three do a fine job with their characters, Mossad agents on a nearly suicidal mission deep in Communist-run East Berlin. Worthington especially makes a positive impression, showing he's more than only an action star, and Chastain too carries herself very well. Even with the mystery though of what happened on the mission, these 1965 Berlin scenes lack a certain energy. We know some sort of twist is coming yet somehow it isn't all that interesting. There's also the always reliable, always cliched love triangle thrown into the mix, one of my all-time least favorite plot devices.
So with a story that has three main characters, we're really seeing six characters, not to mention Jesper Christensen as Dieter Vogel, the Surgeon of Birkenau, a Nazi war criminal who played a major role in the Holocaust (and loosely based on Josef Mengele). Of the two storylines, I was more interested in the 1997 plot. Mirren is one of the best actresses working in movies today, and Wilkinson is no slouch either. Hinds has the least screentime but does not disappoint either. I can't explain the differences because all the acting is above average and pretty top-notch. The more current story just came across better to me while the rest back in Berlin drags at times.
What divided many reviewers/critics was the ending after the twist and an additional surprise are thrown into the story. I for one, liked it a lot, thinking it was a very emotional fitting end for the character. There is a certain amount of viewer interpretation allowed in the ending, but this is where the debt in the title comes into play. These characters have suffered with a decision they made some 30 years back and are now forced to deal with it. The solution is no easier than the original problem, and the final scene is incredibly moving. Credit goes to composer Thomas Newman and his score, balancing the tense scenes (kidnapping Vogel in Berlin) to the quiet moments. A flawed movie in terms of story, but the acting is worth mentioning on its own.
The Debt <---trailer (2010): ***/****