Our Score: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars
The year is 1997. The place is Tel Aviv, Israel. The occasion is a book launching party for Sarah Gold (Romi Aboulafia). Her book is the story of how three young MOSSAD agents infiltrated East Berlin in 1966 and captured and killed Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), better known as “The Surgeon of Berkenau,” a place more commonly known as Auschwitz. Two of the agents involved attend the party, mostly because they are Sarah’s parents. But as the tale unfolds, we learn that what we believe to be true often isn’t.
Based on the 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov,” the majority of the film deals with the operation to kidnap and return Vogel, who is working in East Berlin as a fertility doctor, to Israel to stand trial. The three agents given the assignment are Stephan (Csokas), Rachel (Chastain) and David (Worthington). Rachel and David are pretending to be a young married couple who cannot conceive, causing them to visit Vogel (now referred to as Doctor Bernhardt). Though there seems to be some chemistry between the two, it is Stephan and Rachel who make beautiful music (both physically and literally in a bit of piano-playing foreplay). As the plan proceeds we think we know the outcome but, as I said, don’t believe everything you see (or read).
Skillfully directed by John Madden, who earned an Academy Award nomination for the Oscar-winning Best Picture “Shakespeare in Love,” “The Debt” is a thriller that keeps you guessing up to the end. It also boasts two talented groups of actors. While Csokas, Chastain and Worthington give life to their characters in the flashbacks, the characters are played in later years by Tom Wilkinson, Helen Mirren and Ciaran Hinds, all veterans at the top of their game here. All six give strong performances and it’s a relief to see Worthington not standing in front of a green screen and doing some actual emoting. The story flows nicely for the first ninety minutes or so. It’s only at the end, when 66 year old Mirren goes into her “RED” mode, that the film feels forced. It’s as if the filmmakers felt they needed to take the story PAST the logical ending just to prove they weren’t making a conventional film.
The set decoration by Jim Clay is outstanding, capturing the look of Cold War Berlin perfectly. Thomas Newman’s score helps drive the action as well.