The story of Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), a former Mossad agent who endeavored to capture and bring to trial a notorious Nazi war criminal—the Surgeon of Birkenau—in a secret Israeli mission that ended with his death on the streets of East Berlin. Now, 30 years later, a man claiming to be the doctor has surfaced, and Rachel must go back to Eastern Europe to uncover the truth. Overwhelmed by haunting memories of her younger self and her two fellow agents, the still-celebrated heroine must relive the trauma of those events and confront the debt she has incurred.

Hollywood remake preserves intimacy of Israeli original.

Alternate titles for The Debt, a decades-spanning thriller pivoting on a nail-biting mission behind the Iron Curtain, could be 'Gravitas,' or 'History Rears Its Head' or 'While It's Entirely Possible That The Truth Will Set You Free, Lies Will Definitely Do a Number on You.'

In addition to being a fairly gripping tale told via fine performances, The Debt falls into the category of movies given to lingering in one's memory in the brain whorl marked "What Would I Have Done Under The Same Circumstances?"

The film makes you want to be a Mossad agent en route to making you glad you're not one. That's because in the mid-1960s, after two decades of effort, the Israeli secret service believes it has found a notorious Nazi doctor – Dr. Vogel, "the surgeon of Birkenau" – working in East Berlin where he's a gynaecologist practicing under an assumed name. A trio of German-speaking Mossad agents – 29-year-old David and 25-year-old Rachel posing as a married couple (Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain) and their slightly older commanding officer, Stephen (Marton Csokas) – enter East Germany under false identities and bide their time. In an atmosphere no tenser than a clenched jaw, the trio pay attention to their target and endeavour to ignore the sexual tension dripping from their chaste menage-Á -trois, much as they try to ignore the water dripping from the ceiling of their utilitarian apartment.

One of the things that make it seem romantic and cool to be a secret agent is that you learn swift, effective combat techniques while internalising your cover story. But physical combat is one thing and mental combat is another. The trio's mission is to kidnap the dastardly doctor (Jesper Christensen) and smuggle him out of East Germany and all the way to Israel to stand trial – at a time when it was potentially life-threatening to smuggle so much as a sausage out of East Germany let alone a slippery war criminal very determined to remain at large.

The opening sequence, in which a young woman and two youngish men exit a military transport plane and emerge into the sunlight in Israel, circa 1966, takes on a very different connotation when it is revisited at film's end.

Intelligently structured so as to dole out information at the proper pace, The Debt will almost certainly be compared to The Reader and Munich, both of which also dealt with the generational fallout of WWII, the ins and outs of self-preservation and what happens when hairline cracks appear in one's emotional armour. In fact, The Debt is an English language remake of a recent Israeli film of the same name (Hahov in Hebrew) directed by Assaf Bernstein.

John Madden's take on the story has a Hollywood polish yet preserves a feeling of intimacy and sacrifice. It's a claustrophobic heist film in which the treasure to be extracted happens to be a human being and the thieves end up saddled with marked psyches instead of, say, marked bills. While the right to a fair trail is a cornerstone of democracy, the Mossad has no compunction about taking an undemocratic approach to capturing the soon-to-be-accused. Qualms and misgivings set in after the mission, which doesn't go as planned.

Statistically speaking, not all that many of today's potential movie-goers are former or current Mossad agents who risked their lives to capture a presumed Nazi henchman. But a great many movie-goers take pride in their work and feel a strong allegiance to their country. That alone would be enough of a hook, but The Debt features longing and regret and botched romance and some breathless hand-to-hand (not to mention thigh-to-neck) combat and heart-in-throat improvisation under harrowing circumstances. That's another possible alternate title: 'Harrowing Circumstances.'

The storytelling is efficient rather than overly artistic, effective rather than truly great. And while that may sound like the opposite of a compliment, narratives such as this one are well-served by thoughtful exposition. The story is complex but the film gives us what we need to know to piece together the puzzle. We're not so much complicit in the characters' struggles as we are aware that decisions have consequences.

Many movies touch upon regrets about what could have been – a sporting event that should have been won, a recording contract a band should have grabbed, a broken leg on opening night. But these three secret agents have been entrusted with a mission that's taken 20 years to set up and their extreme sense of duty makes the task that much more monumental. The 'secret’ in 'secret agent’ takes on renewed urgency when, 30 years after a tactical error left the doctor dead in East Germany instead of on trial in Israel, a man claiming to be the Surgeon of Birkenau surfaces in a hospital in another outpost of the former Communist bloc.

Rachel Singer, played as an adult by Helen Mirren, needs to slip undercover once again to investigate. The matter is particularly urgent because her only daughter has just published a book detailing her mother's heroic sacrifice back in 1965, the constant reminder of which is a large L-shaped scar on Rachel's cheek. (If IMDb is to be believed – and it's hard to know where the Mossad stands on its reliability – Chastain and Mirren both measure 5'4", or 1.63 meters).

The film toggles strategically between the three Israelis on their mission in hostile territory in 1965 and their older selves in Tel Aviv in 1997. In English, they have the indeterminate accents of a melting pot nation. And they can pull out a fluent idiomatic command of whatever other language is needed as smoothly as a smoker pulls out his cigarette lighter. Their daily lives are as far as you can get from punching a clock or leaving your work at the office. They're trained fighting machines, but they're not robots.

The 1965-in-Berlin dynamic is tricky as Rachel, David and Stephen live together in their cramped apartment with its leaky ceiling, deep undercover, waiting to pounce. Rachel wants to avenge her dead mother and show she's as brave as any man. As the only surviving member of his family, David wants to be upright and true; the thought of doing inhumane things in the pursuit of justice is anathema to him. He's incredibly tough yet simultaneously sensitive. Stephan is older than the two agents under his command and he's as ambitious as he is dedicated. He has a battle-hardened talent for expedience and his urge to serve the nation is inextricably linked to his need to be seen as a hero.

If you were a casting director looking for an actor who could play Sam Worthington 30 years from now, the excellent Ciarán Hinds might not come to mind. But Hinds conveys the same weight-of-the-world expression Worthington's David bears – a lived-in burden of sorrow.

Chastain and Mirren are a good physical and temperamental match. Tom Wilkinson displays little of Csokas' cocky sexuality although his no-nonsense authority continues to radiate despite the fact that Stephen, circa 1997, is confined to a wheelchair.

As in Costa Gavras's Music Box – in which Armin Mueller-Stahl just seemed too darn harmless to have ever even considered being a Nazi – we at first have reason to doubt that the solicitous gentleman of a certain age Rachel sees about her alleged fertility problem could possibly be a notorious war criminal. Surely the folks at Israeli Intelligence have got it wrong.

The actual kidnapping, which starts in Vogel's office and continues to an incredibly daring escape from East Berlin, is edge-of-your seat stuff. Rachel, David and Stephen's fearless clockwork ingenuity operates smoothly – until it doesn't. And from that glitch stems three decades of regret.

It is fitting that The Debt had its world premiere at the Deauville festival of American Film because French audiences admire the way English-language filmmakers take on uncomfortable aspects of history. (For the record, Madden is British-born and best known for Shakespeare in Love.)

American filmmakers started incorporating the Vietnam War and its legacy into mainstream entertainment (Coming Home, Apocalypse Now) with admirable speed. In contrast, French films centred on the messy reality of the Algerian War were virtually unheard of until fairly recently, and French films that tackle the facts of official complicity in deporting Jews during WWII (La Rafle/The Round-up earlier this year, Sarah's Key due out this October) could be counted on half the fingers of one hand until now.

Israel is a young country whose filmmakers have taken to examining and critiquing uncomfortable history with a vengeance (Waltz with Bashir, Lebanon). In expanding the Hebrew-language The Debt for wider consumption, director Madden tackles themes – honor, duty, sacrifice – that have been diluted in many contemporary films in order to get-to-the-action. (What was really going on in The Expendables anyway? It doesn't matter. Bang! Double bang! Whap! Salt has fun with the idea of indoctrinated sleeper agents who make you want to be an indoctrinated sleeper agent if only because the job description seems to include the ability to bounce off of hard surfaces without a scratch.)

There are several sharply filmed set pieces in The Debt where the stakes couldn't be higher. There's plenty of action but there's also a powerful subtext that keep percolating just below the surface. It's a good combination.



Watch 'The Debt'

Saturday 21 November, 10:45pm on SBS World Movies

NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand

UK, 2010
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Language: English
Director: John Madden
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds

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1 hour 54 min
In Cinemas 10 November 2011,
Wed, 03/28/2012 - 11