“I’m not brave; I’m terrified.”
Whether malicious or compassionate, actions have consequences. It could be your own guilt, justice being served, or the fear and paranoia of what may be coming your way—in the end, the past will rise to haunt you. This is a fact that John Madden’s The Debt uses in many different ways, cross-cutting between 1966 and 1997 with the wipe of the screen. We see the past and present of three Mossad agents and the mission they were ordered to complete, culminating in the glory of victory and its aftermath of suffering. For these three young soldiers, duty and honor are taken to new heights and a person’s willingness to seek retribution—no matter the cost—becomes a hefty price to pay. They must enact the revenge of a people and give Israel solace in the imprisonment of a monster. But no matter how much we may want to succeed or how much training we’re given in order to earn that success, unplanned actions inevitably creep in to set us on a path of no return.
Based on an Israeli thriller named Ha Hov—from 2007 no less, the least Hollywood could do is wait a decade—the plots are similar, yet very different if the synopsis I read is correct. The stakes are must higher in its American remake and that is something I’m surprised to be able to say when we so often dumb down and sugarcoat works of art to be spoon-fed to the masses. Both concern the hunt for a Nazi war criminal, but the events that follow after his capture diverge in ways that make The Debt a much more human tale. It’s never about killing this man in cold-blood, but instead finding a way to get him to Israel so he may stand trial and pay for his sins. There is a plan in place and everything moves along to perfection until carelessness trumps training. For two twenty year olds and the youngest commanding officer Mossad has ever had, the stakes are high and the pressure immense. With an entire nation waiting, failure is not an option.
Beginning in the present day, we watch Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) listen as her daughter Sarah (Romi Aboulafia) showers accolades upon her. The two are at a party in their honor, the latter having wrote a book about the heroism of the former. It’s a time of joy, yet Rachel’s face must strain to show it. And while we soon meet the two men who helped her find and kill a monster—Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) and David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds)—we also find ourselves transported to Berlin thirty years previous. As Mirren reads a passage from her daughter’s book, we witness the younger Singer (Jessica Chastain) perform the words. Alone in an empty apartment with only the drips of rain from the roof and a lifeless, gagged body tied against a wall, the quiet is soon interrupted by a vicious fight leaving her cheek horrifically scarred. Through the struggle comes pain and blood, but just as the former Nazi runs to safety, her expert marksman pulls the trigger and earns a collective sigh back home.
But even as Mirren reads, something is still amiss. Whispered conversations occur between she and Wilkinson—the father of her daughter—and the next thing we know, she’s readying to leave as though on a new mission. Before we can see exactly where her determined walk is going, we are whisked back to see Chastain’s Singer set foot on German soil and meet the younger Peretz (Sam Worthington). The two find their way home where Gold (Marton Csokas) plays the piano and before we know it the original 1966 covert operation has begun. We learn about these soldiers and discover how green they are—she never having been in the field before, Gold too willing to let his testosterone better his intellect, and Peretz too emotional in wanting to give his fallen family justice to see straight. Adversity is never far and its ugly mirror will expose them to dangerous choices they’ll live with for the rest of their lives.
The Debt then becomes a puzzle slowly pieced together. With 1997 holding the more timely mystery, not having happened yet, it is 1966 that resonates in both strength of story and performance. This is not to say Hinds and Wilkinson are disappointing in small roles—they are not. Nor is Mirren as the impetus to the memories and the protagonist through a climatic reveal of silencing her personal demons. But no matter how good these three are, their tale doesn’t exist without the tense months in seclusion trapped behind enemy lines of their former selves. It’s the film’s middle third in Berlin that brings true suspense and intrigue as we watch a beautiful young girl put herself into the lion’s den, completely vulnerable and afraid of what terror may await. The man they’ve been sent to capture is a doctor—Doktor Bernhardt (Jesper Christensen) to be exact—so Singer must pretend to be a hopeful mother. Feigning the need for a gynecologist’s help, she opens her body to a man known for mutilating her people.
Csokas is fantastic as the vocal leader unafraid to make hard decisions or place blame when earned. We see his mistakes show through the rough exterior as his situation escalates uncontrollably. Worthington excels at playing against type with his David being an introspective young man with morality, the temperamental rage rising to the surface only briefly. His compassion risks trouble for the mission’s completion, but not making those choices would cause him forget his own humanity—the thing capturing Bernhardt was hopefully going to reclaim. But it is Chastain who steals the show with an amazingly nuanced performance. Her fear is forever noticeable behind the confident visage shown to the world and is never more apparent then when opposite Worthington or Christensen. Watching her relationship with the enemy evolve from bait to captor is stunning, his words stripping her of all defenses until the truth of that fateful night is learned. It may be Mirren who gets to partake in the half great bow-tied ending, but it’s Chastain who earns such an opportunity. This girl is a star in the making.
 Academy Award winner Helen Mirren stars as retired secret agent Rachel Singer in John Madden’s espionage thriller THE DEBT, a Focus Features release. Photo credit: Laurie Sparham
 Jessica Chastain and Marton Csokas star in John Maddenâ€™s espionage thriller The Debt, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham.
 Jessica Chastain (left) and Sam Worthington (right) star in John Maddenâ€™s espionage thriller The Debt, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham.