British director John Madden (Ethan Frome, Mrs. Brown, Proof) has a long history of making great period pieces. He was even nominated for an Oscar for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. With The Debt, a remake of a 2007 Israeli film of the same name, however, he gets to show off a different set of skills. To some extent, the film is a period piece. But it’s also a taut thriller that relies on plot twists shared through a series flashback reveals and some really stellar acting performances.
At the story’s start, Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), a former Mossad agent, is being recognized for the heroics she exhibited in the capture of former Nazi surgeon Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christiensen) courtesy of a book her daughter penned. A 30-year flashback brings us to scenes from a mission that a 20-something Rachel (Jessica Chastain) undertook in the 1960s, infiltrating East Berlin with two male agents, David (Sam Worthington) and Stefan (Martin Csokas).
We soon learn, however, that while they were able to successfully kidnap the doctor, their mission didn’t go entirely smoothly. Now much older, they struggle with the ramifications of a secret share. Stefan (Tom Wilkinson), who is now Rachel’s ex-husband and in charge of Israeli security, tries to ensure that both David (Ciaran Hinds) and Rachel deal with what happened in East Berlin the way he believes is best for all involved.
While the cast that portrays the agents living the present is great, the actors who portray the younger version of the characters are the real standouts here. Castain is terrific as the young, strong-willed but emotionally vulnerable Rachel and Csokas is fantastic as the hot-headed and ambitious Stefan. While Worthington is on slightly shakier ground as the quietly intense David, he manages to keep up with the others.
No sneaking out for popcorn refills because this flick demands full attention, especially with its frequent shifts between the past and present, but the movie is so well-filmed and acted, it’s hard to find fault with it. While we think Mirren is great in whatever she does (her Oscar for her role as Queen Elizabeth II in 2007’s The Queen was well-deserved), this film belongs to Chastain, who will have six roles to her credit by the time the year is over.