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Thriller owes ‘Debt’ to strong cast

Published: September 9, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

As fanciful as “Inglourious Basterds” was, its presentation of a merry band of Nazi hunters in occupied France satisfied a very real desire—to see Hitler and his cronies punished for their deeds. What history was unable to furnish, Quentin Tarantino dished out cinematically.

Director John Madden’s “The Debt” satisfies a similar need, though it focuses its anger on a different figure: Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi who infamously performed horrific experiments on countless prisoners at Auschwitz. His crimes were among the most inhumane committed under the heinous regime, yet he evaded capture, dying 34 years after the war in South America.

In “The Debt,” Mengele has been transformed into Dr. Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a Nazi whose nickname “the Surgeon of Birkenau” only hints at the atrocities he committed. Picking up more than 20 years after the war, Vogel is a popular gynecologist in 1966 East Berlin. Unbeknownst to him, two Mossad agents—David (Sam Worthington) and Stefan (Martin Csokas)—have received their government’s permission to capture Vogel and bring him to Israel to stand trial.

To accomplish this, another agent—Rachel (Jessica Chastain)—arrives in the city, where she poses as David’s wife and begins seeking fertility advice from Vogel. As the three agents hone in on their target, however, it becomes clear that both men have developed feelings for Rachel, which leads to friction once Vogel is in their grasp.

While the most crucial events occur in East Berlin, the film actually begins 30 years later in Tel Aviv, where an older Rachel (Helen Mirren) is attending the launch party for a book about the mission to capture Vogel. When Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) and David (Ciaran Hinds) re-enter her life, it quickly becomes clear that not everything about their past is quite what it seems. A debt—the truth—is owed.

“The Debt” is at its best when it focuses on the young Mossad agents, particularly in the scenes in which they confront a sneering Vogel. Vogel remains completely unrepentant; rather than ask their forgiveness, he taunts them by playing mind games and reminding them of the family they lost in the Holocaust. Vogel has a knack for reading their interiors, both figuratively and literally when you consider that he has had access to Rachel’s most personal spaces.

It can become painful when thrillers decide to play romantic geometry, but the love triangle here thankfully avoids those pitfalls. The triangle only enhances the main story, and—at least in the beginning—both men seem like viable matches. David is all deep, dark, and brooding (but accessible) sentiment, while Stefan is, in a word, fun.

Alas, the film goes off the rails when it reunites us with the agents in the present-day. While a very clever plot twist reshapes the film and our expectations of it, the resolution of the events it sets in motion really taxes our suspension of disbelief. There is something believable and human about the 1966 arc and that something seems to get lost by the end of the film.

Despite this later turn-of-events, “The Debt” never loses its strongest asset—its uniformly strong cast. In the latter-day scenes, Helen Mirren does a great job—surprise!—of bringing a reserved strength to her Rachel. She boasts a passable Israeli accent that sometimes evades her. Wilkinson similarly puts in strong work, though his material is not nearly as strong.

The film’s most valuable acting asset, however, is in its flashbacks.

This has been a banner year for rising star Jessica Chastain, as she’s already appeared as the ethereal mother in “The Tree of Life” and as a ditzy outcast in “The Help.” “The Debt” gives her yet another opportunity to show her impressive skills. Her Rachel is fierce yet also immensely vulnerable. Those contradictory elements can sometimes prove difficult to meld—you risk creating a character that’s a cocky, weepy mess—but she balances them beautifully. It’s always tricky when you cast two actors to play the same role, especially when one of them is Helen Mirren, but the two have clearly worked together to create a sense of continuity that goes beyond the scar they both wear on their faces.

Martin Csokas, as younger Stefan, also impresses, injecting the film with a self-confidence and overt sexuality that it would otherwise lack. Sam Worthington, who plays the younger David, has never impressed in his other Hollywood work—he’s almost a non-entity in “Avatar” and “Clash of the Titans” despite being their star—yet here his sullen demeanor works. His character, after all, is intended to be emotionally inaccessible.

Of course, one can’t forget Jesper Christensen, the actor behind the Surgeon of Birkenau. He expertly navigates the divide between the doctor’s friendly public demeanor—he has, after all, transformed himself into a well-liked gynecologist—and the monster that lurks beneath. If nothing else, his is the kind of performance that can lead to nightmares.

Visually, director John Madden presents a work that’s a bit by-the-numbers, aping the style of many retro thrillers. Yet, when you consider this film and his past efforts like “Shakespeare in Love,” he clearly has a knack for assembling top-notch casts and eliciting great performances from them.

In short, see “The Debt.” If nothing else, the performances will ensure you won’t leave the theater feeling cheated.