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Helen Mirren in 'The Debt': movie review

Helen Mirren, in 'The Debt,' plays a Mossad agent who helps kidnap a Nazi war criminal and discovers the dangers of deception.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / August 31, 2011

Helen Mirren is shown in a scene from the thriller 'The Debt.'

Laurie Sparham/Focus Features/AP


Based on the little-seen 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov,” “The Debt” is an attempt to fashion a thriller with smarts – a “Marathon Man” for our time. As is often the case with such attempts, the thrills work out better than the smarts.

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Directed by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”), the film has a two-tiered time structure. Beginning in 1997, the story at first focuses on retired Mossad secret agents Rachel (Helen Mirren) and ex-husband Stephan (Tom Wilkinson), whose daughter has just come out with a book lauding their exploits in a daring operation back in 1965-66 when, along with a third agent, David (Ciarán Hinds), they tracked down in East Berlin the notorious Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the Mengele-like “surgeon of Birkenau.”

The operation is dramatized in lengthy flashback. Rachel (portrayed as a young woman by the fine and omnipresent Jessica Chastain), has had no field experience up to this point, but she’s steely and brainy and knows her Krav Maga (Israeli martial arts). She’s also beautiful, which sets up the requisite triangular sexual tension between herself and the young David (Sam Worthington), a man of grave conscience who sees the mission as a chance to bring Vogel’s crimes to the world, and young Stephan (Marton Csokas), who regards the operation in more militaristic terms. All three lost family in the Holocaust.

Vogel, it turns out, has been living quietly as an obstetrician in East Berlin, so Rachel infiltrates his good graces by presenting herself to him as a patient with infertility issues. The scenes between the two of them in his examining room are some of the film’s best: This monster, whose ghastly medical experiments with children are revealed to us earlier in photographs, is seemingly kindly and indulgent. But there’s a shiv of wariness in his questions to Rachel, who can barely suppress her revulsion. “Who recommended me to you?” he asks, and you know why he’s asking.


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