Based on the 2007 Israeli thriller Ha-Hov, the 2010-made The Debt (one of three films to come out that year with the same title!) is a taut tale of espionage starring Helen Mirren as Rachel Singer: one of three former spies who captured the notorious Nazi doctor Dieter “Surgeon of Birkenau” Vogel in the mid ‘60s. It is now the late ‘90s, and Rachel is a special guest at a reading of a new book by her daughter, Sarah (Romi Aboulafia), which depicts the story of her mother’s heroic achievement. But, despite this joyous occasion, things are still amiss.
Rachel is informed by one of her former fellow agents from that incident — Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson), who also happens to be Sarah’s father — that their other ex-colleague, David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds) has met an untimely-but-intentional demise courtesy of a passing semi (ouch). Diving into the mystery behind David’s suicide, Rachel and Stephan discover something truly ghastly about their past.
From there, we have an extended flashback to 1965, wherein we learn the truth about the capture of the “Surgeon of Birkenau” (an utterly marvelous Jesper Christiansen), who is — fittingly enough — working as a gynecologist in East Berlin under an assumed name. Young Rachel (Jessica Chastain) poses as the wife of David (Sam Worthington) in order to get close to the monster, with Stephan (Marton Csokas) acting as ringleader to the strategy: a plan which doesn’t go to plan, and leaves room for some ill-fated improvisation.
While the movie’s main veteran performers (Mirren and Wilkinson) are excellent in this gripping and realistic venture into Nazi hunting, I have to give a lot of credit to actors and actress portraying the younger versions of the same characters. The rising talents of Jessica Chastain are riveting (you honestly believe she’s the young Helen Mirren here, and that’s something not many actresses can do), and Marton Csokas looks like he would be perfectly at home in a ‘60s secret agent flick. Sam Worthington, on the other hand, serves as the film’s weakest link, turning in another lifeless, restricted performance (but then, what do you expect from the star of Avatar and the remake of Clash of the Titans?).
Director John Madden (no, not the sportscaster) keeps the suspense and drama both believable and fixed throughout this remake (which is surprisingly enjoyable for being an American production), while the better-than-average script is by Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare at Goats, 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and Kick-Ass/X-Men: First Class screenwriters Jane Goldman and Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn (who also co-produced this one). Thomas Newman composed the film’s magnetic music score, which adds to the onscreen intrigue, drama, and fleeting moments of romance splendidly.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings us an excellent transfer of this often-gritty drama, with sharp detail and contrast, and colors that still stand out despite the film’s palette being rather cold. A rousing 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio lossless track provides a few jumps when it needs to, and is a great mix overall. Spanish and French DTS 5.1 audio options are also on-hand, and there are subtitles available in English (SDH), Spanish and French. Special features-wise, director Madden and co-producer Kris Thykier bring us a mellow (but informative) audio commentary, and Universal round things up with three brief EPK featurettes. Strangely enough, there’s no theatrical trailer for this one to be found here.
To sum it all up in one lump, kids: The Debt is one of the better new releases I’ve seen in a while. It’s rare that I get as involved in a movie as I did here, and I have the cast and crew of this magnificent mini-masterpiece to thank (well, except for Sam Worthington, of course).