John Madden directs a gripping English-language remake of the Israeli film 'Ha-Hov' about three retired Mossad agents, who come face-to-face with the spectres of the past.
Tightly scripted by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, 'The Debt' is a political thriller that cranks up the tension and elegantly conceals plot twists by cutting back and forth between events in 1966 and 1997.
On the whole, Madden abides by convention but he occasionally wrong-foots us, including a jaw-dropping shock in the opening 10 minutes that sparks nagging doubts about the life expectacy of the lead characters.
The casualties of war are high and star billing offers scant protection from an inglorious early exit.
In Tel Aviv, 1997, Sarah Singer (Romi Aboulafia) proudly unveils a book about her brave mother Rachel (Helen Mirren), father Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) and fellow Mossad operative David Peretz (Ciaran Hinds), who were despatched to East Berlin in 1966 to hunt down Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen).
Through interviews with the people who were there, Sarah has penned a vivid account of the trio’s exploits behind enemy lines and their remarkable determination to bring Vogel to justice.
Confronted with this written account of the 1966 mission to capture Vogel, who conducted horrific experiments on Jews, Rachel recalls the past with shame and despair.
In flashback, we witness Rachel (Jessica Chastain) arrive in the divided capital where she poses as the infertile wife of David (Sam Worthington) to secure a consultation with gynaecologist Vogel.
Stephan (Marton Csokas) conceives the daring plan to kidnap ’the Surgeon of Birkenau’ from his practice and smuggle his heavily drugged body across the border on a night time train.
However, Vogel is no pushover.
'The Debt' holds our attention in a vice-like grip, anchored by strong performances from the two ensemble casts.
Madden directs the set pieces with aplomb including a perfectly timed escape from the doctor’s surgery.
Screen chemistry between Chastain and Worthington sizzles and Mirren commands attention in later sequences, capturing the despair of a woman who has been looking over her shoudler, waiting for the truth to catch up with her.
Christensen is mesmerising as the sadistic villain of the piece, baiting his captors by cackling: “I forgot. You Jews never knew how to kill. Only how to die.”
There are a few plot holes, not least the remarkable sprightliness and vigour of Vogel in the latter sequences.
He is already an old man in the 1960s so when the narrative jumps forward three decades, the diabolical old coot must be fast approaching his 90th birthday, yet he still possesses astounding strength and agility.
We forgive Madden’s film the odd indiscretion because the characters certainly don’t forgive themselves, haunted by Stephan’s assertion that: “Truth is a luxury. Some people have to put other things first: their family, their country.”
Star Rating: 3½