The Debt (2010)
“Every secret comes with a price”
Director: John Madden
Cast: Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Tom Wilkinson
Synopsis: In 1965, three Mossad agents cross into East Berlin to apprehend a notorious Nazi war criminal. Thirty years later, the secrets the agents share come back to haunt them.
The Debt is one of those movies that attempts, by drip-feeding occasional clues to its audience, to manufacture a mystery that doesn’t really exist. The story is quite straightforward, but by jumping back and forward in time — and, we later find out, lying about a key incident — and keeping us pretty much clueless for the first thirty minutes, it tries to turn itself into one of those complex Smiley-type movies when it really doesn’t need to. In fact, if anything, the opening couple of reels are something of an obstacle in the way that they disjoint the narrative flow. You’ve got to be in the right frame of mind to sit through it all before the movie settles down, so if you’re not in a patient mood when you come to watch this movie I’d save it for another day.
It opens in 1966 with three Mossad agents touching down at Tel Aviv to be greeted by men in suits. A voiceover reveals that they were sent to East Berlin to capture Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) before the scene switches to the launch party for a book about their mission written by the daughter of Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), the woman who played a major part in the operation. As Rachel reads an excerpt from the book the action returns to 1965 New Year’s Eve, and we see the younger Rachel (Jessica Chastain) with a gagged and bound man in a near-derelict flat. The man takes Rachel by surprise after escaping his ties and she’s forced to shoot him as he attempts to escape. Then we’re back in 1997, and we see the arrival of Rachel’s former husband Stefan (Tom Wilkinson, played as a younger man by Marton Csokas), who was also a member of the mission. Rachel and Jessica are civil to one another, but it’s clear that their relationship is strained. Back and forth the story goes, deliberately mystifying the viewer.
It seems the bound man is Vogel, whom the three young agents — the somewhat idealistic David, played by Sam Worthington as a young man and Ciaran Hinds as an old one, is the third member of the party — failed to smuggle out of East Berlin after successfully abducting him from the surgery in which he worked as a gynaecologist. Forced to keep him in the rundown apartment until Mossad can figure out a way to get him to Israel, all three of the agents are subjected to a game of psychological cat-and-mouse by Vogel which is intended to drive a wedge between them.
To reveal any more would probably spoil the movie for those yet to see it but, while The Debt is well-written, expertly directed, and competently acted by a superb cast it doesn’t really have that much of a story to tell. A bungled operation is covered up, and thirty years later those who did the covering up must pay the price. It seems to me that the main focus of this kind of story should be on the different ways in which the three young agents are affected by their cover-up but, while that aspect does come into play, the bulk of the running time focuses on events back in 1965. When the movie concentrates on this part of the story it delivers an absorbing, tightly-plotted scenario filled with tension and suspense but, like those young agents, things get loose and flabby when we return to 1997, and not a little far-fetched. It’s a real shame, because The Debt has the weight and intelligence to be an extremely good film — you can actually see its potential to be something great as you watch it — but it sadly falls short by some little margin.