Best known for more romantic fare such as Her Majesty Mrs. Brown, Shakespeare in Love, and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, director John Madden turns in a muddled but modestly enjoyable thriller with The Debt, a remake of the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov.
Much of the story unfolds via flashback, in East Berlin in 1966, where a team of Mossad agents — David (Sam Worthington), Stefan (Marton Csokas), and Rachel (Jessica Chastain) — attempt to abduct a German doctor believed to be the infamous “Surgeon of Birkenau” (Jesper Christensen) and smuggle him to Israel to be tried for war crimes.
The operation hits a snag and the team is forced to hole up in their safehouse and devise a new exit strategy, giving the doctor time to play mind games with his captors. He’s sized up their respective vulnerabilities, and proves quite adept at provoking and manipulating the trio.
The rest of the tale plays out in 1997, when the three comrades (with the older versions of the characters played by Ciarán Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, and Helen Mirren, respectively) are forced to reunite following the publication of a book detailing their efforts. There is apparently more to the story than they ever told, and the truth is threatening to bubble up to the surface with catastrophic consequences.
The plot tends to clunk along at times, with an awkward blend of melodrama and espionage never quite that never quite meshes gears with fractured chronology of the plot. Madden keeps the story moving along well enough, but it has a cold, workmanlike feel to it that keeps it from being fully engaging.
Casting is key for a story such as this, and The Debt largely succeeds in that department. The younger actors are a bit underserved by their flatly written characters, but the do manage to flesh them out. Worthington, usually wooden in most of his performances, is better served playing the repressed, tortured David; Chastain ably delivers the tough-girl facade that shields her character’s vulnerability; and Csokas is enjoyably loathsome as a career-climbing agent, though he’s given little beyond that.
It’s the veteran actors playing the older versions of the characters who get the most meat from the script, however. The flashback scenes are more exotic, but the energy of The Debt comes from watching Mirren, Wilkinson, and Hinds play worn-down idealists who’ve held too many secrets for too long.