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6.9.11

For Your Consideration: 'The Debt'

One of the worst criminals of the Holocaust, Josef Mengele, infamous for his medical experimentation on prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau, managed to avoid capture in South America until his death in 1979. The Mossad reportedly had a chance to abduct Mengele when he was in Argentina, but already had its hands full catching Adolf Eichmann. What if a team of Mossad agents had managed to capture and kill Mengele instead of letting him go? What if the story they told after the mission did not turn out to be quite true?

This is the conceit of John Madden's new film The Debt, which follows three Mossad agents in the 1990s as they look back on their mission, in the 1960s, to abduct a Mengele-like Nazi war criminal -- Dieter Vogel, with the nickname "The Surgeon of Birkenau" -- from East Berlin. The movie is a remake of Assaf Bernstein's Ha ḥov, an Israeli film from 2007, and the screenplay credits include Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum, from the original movie, as well as Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan. The narrative construction, shifting between the two time periods, helped by having two mostly different sets of actors, is sometimes confusing and circles back on itself, layering meaning and multiple perspectives into lots of scenes. All in all, this is a thinking person's espionage thriller, a film whose tension is heightened -- or perhaps deflated, depending on your point of view -- by degrees of moral complexity.


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Most of the film's weight rests on the character of Rachel Singer, whose first action in the field as a Mossad agent is the mission to capture Vogel. The doctor is hidden in plain sight, as a gynecologist living and working under an assumed name, and Rachel is sent as the bait, masquerading as a patient seeking advice on her problem getting pregnant (these sequences are the most tense in the movie). Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life, The Help) finds a powerful combination of vulnerability and fierceness as the young Rachel, the traces of sympathy and humanity betraying her as she matches wits with Vogel. The three agents -- Singer, a smart-aleck Stephan (Marton Csokas), and wounded-puppy David (Sam Worthington) -- unable to get Vogel out of East Berlin as planned, are forced to hold him in their rented apartment until they reach a solution. Danish actor Jesper Christensen is a fiendishly smart and suave monster as Vogel, playing on every sympathetic string he can find in Rachel.

The anguish of a life telling a story that is not true is written on the scarred, lined face of Helen Mirren, as the older Rachel. Mirren, who remains one of the most elegant and talented actresses around, shows every sign of pulling off that most difficult thing in youth-obsessed Hollywood, having a glamorous career late in life. Likewise, the torment of the love triangle that developed in the stress of their time together in East Berlin is told in the strain on the faces of the other older counterparts, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds (the latter reunited with Mirren from Prime Suspect). Director John Madden, who has not had much success since Shakespeare in Love and Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown in the late 1990s, may have hit his stride again. The Debt is not a home run, it has its longueurs and its missteps, but it is a solid and enjoyable movie.

In the Washington area, The Debt is screening exclusively at the E Street Cinema.

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