The Debt ✮✮✮✮

The Looking Glass War

by Glenn Lovell

You get two riveting movies for the price of one in John Madden’s “The Debt,” starring Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain as the same character separated by 30 years of lies and deception, as well as one nasty facial scar suffered in the line of duty.

Mirren: Seriously scarred

Arguably the two most talented actresses now going, Mirren and Chastain would make this espionage thriller-mystery worthwhile viewing even if the various elements of the labyrinthine plot didn’t quite mesh.

That they do slide effortlessly into place is testament to Madden’s skill as both storyteller and old-fashioned action director. He keeps us nailed to our seat throughout as the narrative ricochets from present to past and back again, from Tel Aviv to East Berlin to Kiev. This is easily Madden’s best film since his Oscar-winning “Shakespeare in Love.” It also happens to be, along with last week’s “The Help,” again with Chastain, one of the best films of the year.

Mirren is the middle-aged Rachel Singer, a former Israeli intelligence agent who, upon the publication of her daughter’s book, seems less than comfortable being reminded that in 1966, she and two other agents pursued and captured Nazi fugitive Dieter Vogel, a.k.a. “the Surgeon of Birkenau” whose grisly experiments are the stuff of nightmares. Chastain plays the 25-year-old Rachel in the extended flashbacks to East Berlin, where Vogel (a seriously malevolent  Jesper Christensen) now practices gynecology as a Dr. Bernhardt.

Much of the first half of the film is devoted to the deadly mission to snag Vogel and bring him back to Israel to face justice at a very public trial. Rachel joins Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington), who have already located the doctor. Stephan is the cynical, politically ambitious leader of the team; David, who lost his family in the Holocaust, seems boyishly naïve in his commitment to a greater cause. Both men in their way are smitten by the new agent, who, though exceedingly attractive, proves their equal in hand-to-hand combat.

The plot to take Vogel is incredibly unnerving, especially the moments in which the undercover Rachel is at her most vulnerable on the doctor’s examination table. Once they have their quarry, things don’t go as planned, and the bitter ironies begin to pile up. Vogel easily scopes out the situation and, like Hannibal Lecter, works sinister mind-games, especially on David and Rachel, who can’t disguise a mutual infatuation.

And before you know it, the captors have become the captives, lashing out at each other and, at crucial moments, dropping their guard.

The piece de resistance: a single sequence played from a slightly different perspective. It not only works, it works beautifully. Madden sucks us in all over again and, taking a page from “Rashomon,” reminds us that memories can be more than embellished, they can be outright lies.

And this is what the present-day Rachel, Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) and David (Ciaran Hinds) must now contend with.

“The Debt” — based on an Israeli movie and set to a nerve-jangling, Eastern flavored score by Thomas Newman — is a superb espionage thriller, as well-orchestrated in spots as “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” “Black Sunday” and “Munich,” three obvious influences. But as good as the action sequences are, they’re not what you’ll talk about as you exit. What this film is really about is the difference between real and perceived courage, doing the right thing vs. staging a PR coup for the folks back home … and living with your choices.

In the end, “The Debt” is nothing less than a rumination on Truth with a capital T.

What could be more timely?

The Debt ✮✮✮✮ With Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, Tom Wilkinson, Jesper Christensen, Ciaran Hinds. Directed by John Madden; scripted by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Peter Straughan. 104 min. Rated R (for violence, profanity, sexual situations)

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