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'The Debt' pays off

Everything else the same.


'THE DEBT': Helen Mirren stars.
  • 'THE DEBT': Helen Mirren stars.

The action of "The Debt," a satisfying take on the post-War thriller, slips between the cloak-and-dagger '60s to a grayer '90s, by which point a trio of Israeli Mossad agents, so sleek and coolly mod in the opening, have succumbed to time. Michael (Ciarán Hinds) is haggard and haunted; Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) has risen in the bureaucracy but maintains a savage edge, and Rachel (Helen Mirren) puts an inscrutable exterior over her scars, notwithstanding the faded slashmark on her cheek. If not the first movie that imagines younger spies of the Cold War era as middle-aged, "The Debt" does so with more realism than the genre usually engenders, and with something like equal time for both the younger and older versions of the leads. Between the two halves we have what feels like a complete story, pockmarked by the pains of aging, artfully told, neatly booby-trapped with twists. Its release now reminds us that summer's braindead blockbuster season is giving way to movies that feel smarter, more dangerous and worthy of repeat viewings.

The screenplay, credited to British noir veteran Matthew Vaughn plus Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, and adapted from a 2007 Israeli film of the same title, metes out details like monkeybars — at intervals to keep you swinging but never stuck hanging. The story is, in a sense, a Holocaust thriller on extensive time-delay. Young Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Michael (Sam Worthington) and Stephan (Marton Csokas) are sent to divided Berlin to identify and capture a former Nazi, Doktor Bernhardt (a chilling Jesper Christensen), the so-called Surgeon of Birkenau, who eluded capture after a war career of sadistic experiments on Jews to become, of all things, a practicing ob-gyn. When we meet him, he is concerned now only for the curiously accented patient who turns up in his office claiming she's unable to conceive. The examination scenes — Rachel vulnerable in hospital gown and propped supine in stirrups, Bernhardt as cold and precise as his instruments — are models of calm tension, and genuinely unsettling. Long after you forget other moments in "The Debt," these will linger.

From this point of vulnerability, Rachel is the fulcrum on which the mission will turn. Because of her it is a success, and because of her that success is only partial, and because of her a rift between Michael and Stephan forms, then widens. The quieter Michael, so consumed with the desire to bring Bernhardt to trial, assumes the role of Rachel's husband for their cover, holding her hand and escorting her to her appointments, yet pulls away when his feelings for her flare. Stephan, more brazen, less single-minded, flaunts his charms and is too happy to pick up where Michael leaves Rachel dangling. The director, John Madden, an old hand at period romances, spins this love triangle like a top.

The pull of duty is strong — duty to a young Israel, duty to family, duty to extract, if only through a bloodless court system, a measure of revenge for the crimes against Jews — but for their fealty to the cause, the three young agents are still fallible, at turns soft, at turns cruel. When the mission falters, their frailties are largely to blame. The fear of shame leads to lies that amplify over the years. All four major characters try, at some point, to evade the truth, but none really escape it. As dark as "The Debt" turns for its protagonists, even for the Israelis, it is a comforting conceit after the Holocaust that justice, truly blind, will sniff us all out eventually.

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