Movie Review: The Debt

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A gripping spy drama.

A book launch, a heroic retelling about how three young Mossad agents brought down a Nazi war criminal, sets the stage for a dramatic spy story.

The book is penned by Sarah Gold, the admiring daughter of Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), the central hero of the story.  A tragic news about one of the players and former colleague portrayed in the book, David Peretz (Ciaran Hinds) brings together Rachel and Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson), into unsettling conversations.  Stephan happens to be Rachel’s ex-husband, Sarah’s father, and the former lead agent.

Long-absent from the world, David has surprisingly come out to see Rachel earlier.  The incident opens up the mystery about what really happened that rainy New Year’s Eve over 30 years ago in East Germany, and what they need to do next as a result.

Flashback to 1965.  The top covert mission is clear.  First confirm the identity of the Nazi doctor, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), who did horrible experiments on the Jewish children.  Then nab, drug and smuggle him across the border to Israel so that he will stand trial for his unspeakable crimes.  The reality isn’t so simple.

The three young agents, played by Jessica Chastain (Rachel), Sam Worthington (David) and Stephan (Marton Csokas), live and train together in a dingy flat – each plays a crucial role in the mission.  Stephan, strong and dominant, is the team leader.  David is strongly determined, but mostly private and quiet.  Losing his entire family in the Holocaust, he keeps to himself most times.  Rachel goes undercover as a patient with infertility issues to see Vogel, now “Doktor Bernhardt,” a gynecologist.  David, poses as her husband, accompanies her walks to the clinic.  Considering what Vogel is capable of, the intimate nature of the examination, where Rachel has her feet up in the stirrups, would make anyone squirm.

While the nail-biting kidnapping is a success, the run toward freedom is not.  Due to the covert nature of the mission, the trio doesn’t have any backup to support them.  They find themselves stranded with Vogel tied up in their flat.  The captured target is a master manipulator.  It’s ominous to watch the effects of mind-manipulation even on the hardiest professionals.  During the individual shifts to feed him, Vogel skillfully breaks down the agents’ personal defenses and turn them against one another.  It doesn’t help that a love triangle is already formed.  While it’s obvious that Rachel and David have developed feelings for each other, however restrained, it’s Stephan that Rachel ends up with during one forlorn night.

“The Debt” is stellarly set, shot, and acted.  The dark and grubby abode heightens the claustrophobic tension.  With plenty of old-fashioned suspense and action, the story (written by Matthew Vaughn, “X-Men: First Class“) also zooms in on the relationships among the main characters, and their inner beliefs and values.  All the actors rise up to the occasion.

How much does the truth cost?  Would there ever be a case where the greater good matter more?  How would one right a wrong if doing so would adversely affect their country and the lives of the people they care about most?

The messy ending is dissatisfying, but it doesn’t take away from this morally ambiguous and emotionally compelling story.  A taut thriller about secrets, lies, love, promise, honor, sacrifice, and truth.

Copyright (c) 2011. Nathalia Aryani.

Nathalia Aryani is a business manager, foreign language translator, lifestyle/travel writer and film columnist. She can be reached at Nathalia owns a movies blog, The MovieMaven (  Twitter:

Nathalia Aryani is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic ( She has a movie blog, The MovieMaven ( Twitter: @the_moviemaven. She can be reached at [email protected].

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