The three of them live in extremely close quarters for a long period of time and romantic tension begins to flare between Rachel and both her male counterparts. When the time comes for their mission, all does not go to plan and they are forced to make the decision to keep the evil Doctor captive much longer than first anticipated. The doctor slowly gets inside their heads and as tension rises, a series of events unfolds that calls into question the heroic story Rachel’s daughter immortalized in her book.
Clearly, there’s a lot to get your teeth into here. The powerful and emotive subject of the Holocaust and Nazi atrocities are at the forefront of the film. The three Mossad agents are seeking not to hunt down and kill the doctor, but to kidnap him and force him to answer for his crimes. Theirs is a quest for justice at a time when the world was perhaps beginning to slowly forget the horrors of the war. This daring mission is set amidst the drab grey backstreets of Cold War East Berlin. Director John Madden captures the claustrophobic and dreary atmosphere that surrounds the trio not only in their decaying flat but also in the city itself. For the agents, the stakes couldn’t be higher as capture would mean torture and possibly death as well as being a severe international embarrassment for Israel.
The 1997 thread of the film is difficult to get into too much without giving large portions of the plot away. What I will say though is this; Rachel, Stefan and David are all clearly still affected by their experiences in Berlin. The three of them are hiding a secret and from the outset we are unsure whether the documented version of events is in fact the truth. The immense emotional burden of long buried secrets is written all over their faces. The predictable love triangle that emerges between the three agents is another source of angst and subdued emotion and in many ways this highlights a key emphasis of the film, repression. It’s the repression of both the truth and of true feelings, all in the name of the apparent greater good which engulfs them.
The cast is strong with Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson giving engaging performances as you might expect. For me though it’s the young cast that stands out the most. Marton Csokas is spot on as the brooding and manipulating Stefan and Sam Worthington likewise as the passionate and committed David. Special mention must also go to Jessica Chastain who, despite Helen Mirren’s obvious top billing, is the focal point for much of the film. She portrays young Rachel as both dedicated and deadly whilst at the same time young and naïve. Chastain ensures her character is believable as an ass-kicking Mossad agent but gives her a noticeable fragile edge.
Unfortunately the split time frame only works to a certain degree as a plot device. The idea of first showing one version of an event and then showing it again as it really happened is an interesting one. The problem The Debt faces however is that for all the tension and drama of its’ 66 set plot, there’s the slightly plodding and unsurprising ’97 bit. The action set in the nineties lacks that Cold War sense of danger and intrigue and especially towards the film’s end feels a little tacked on. You start longing for more time spent in the murky back streets of East Berlin alongside the ruthless young agents. The real drama of the piece and the film's big revelation is wrapped up far too early and the less interesting modern day repercussions are left to bring the film home.
It’s still a well made and engaging thriller, and definitely worth your time at the mutlipelx, but it falls just short of reaching its full potential.