The Debt is half a good movie, with a sharp little Cold War spy story bookended by a muddled mess of a framing device.
It begins in Tel Aviv, Israel, circa 1997. Estranged ex-spouses Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) and Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) attend the launch party of their daughter’s nonfiction book, which chronicles their exploits as Mossad agents behind East Berlin’s Iron Curtain in 1965, when during a botched kidnapping mission they executed a Nazi doctor (Jesper Christensen) whose concentration camp experiments killed countless Jews.
Or did they? The film flashes back to 1965 and we gradually learn the true story of the mission in a series of splendidly measured scenes that compare favorably to Martin Ritt’s 1965 adaptation of John le Carré’s Cold War classic The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
Stephan and Rachel are played in flashback by Marton Csokas and Jessica Chastain, the latter of whose performances here and in The Tree of Life and The Help have established her as the most promising young actress in Hollywood. She has a classical beauty that seems to come from a bygone era, making her ideal for period pieces. If Hollywood ever has a casting call for the Venus de Milo, Chastain is a lock for the role.
The future spouses are joined in the operation by David (Sam Worthington), creating a delicate ménage à trois that casts a pungent sexual tension over the proceedings. To gain access to the former Nazi doctor, who now runs an unassuming gynecology practice, David and Rachel pose as a husband and wife having difficulty conceiving. As she sits in the examining chair with her legs spread, the look of violated discomfort on Chastain’s face is superbly nuanced; it’s wordless acting at its best.
The bungled kidnapping at a train depot is well-directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), as is the battle of wills that ensues in a cloistered apartment between the anti-Semitic Nazi and his Jewish captors. If only Madden had either the discipline to maintain the tight plotting of these scenes in the modern sequences or the good sense to dispense with the framing device altogether.
The scenes set in Israel suffer not only from sloppy and occasionally incomprehensible plotting, but also from the problem of casting older actors as the aging versions of their younger counterparts. Mirren and Chastain share similar bone structures, and with considerable imagination Wilkinson is passable as an older likeness of Csokas, but Ciarán Hinds, as the elder version of David, looks absolutely nothing like Sam Worthington. It’s truly one of the most puzzling casting decisions in recent memory. Even a non-actor who bore a passing resemblance to Worthington would have been a better choice.
The ending of The Debt, set without any good reason in the Ukraine, is utterly ridiculous. It’s a shame, because had the story remained in East Berlin for its entirety it could have been a minor classic of spies stranded out in the cold.
The Debt is currently playing at the Majestic 10 in Williston, the Palace 9 in South Burlington, Essex Cinemas in Essex Jct., and the Capitol 5 in Montpelier.