Usually when a movie’s release is delayed by nearly a year, warning signals go off that it may be turkey time.
That’s not the case with “The Debt,” an intriguing thriller that was slated to open in late 2010 but got lost in the corporate shuffle when Disney sold Miramax. It’s finally showing up in multiplexes now, and was worth the wait.
“The Debt” is a taut spy thriller that’s an English-language remake by director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) of “Ha-Hove,” a 2007 Israeli film. It tells the fictional story of a trio of Mossad agents tasked to capture a sadistic former Nazi (Danish actor Jesper Christensen) in East Berlin in 1965. Now practicing under an assumed name as a obstetrician-gynecologist, he was once known as Surgeon of Birkenau.
The three agents are Rachel (Jessica Chastain), a newly-minted agent who will pose as a patient to trap the doctor, David (Sam Worthington), and team leader Stephen (Marton Csokas). During the course of the mission, both men will find themselves attracted to Rachel.
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The movie keeps shifting between these three undertaking their mission and 1997, when the former comrades are asked to reunite in Israel to mark the publication of a book depicting their exploits. Now in late middle age, the trio’s members — Helen Mirren is the older Rebecca, Ciaran Hinds is David, and Tom Wilkinson is Stephen — have clearly long harbored a secret related to what happened in East Berlin that is causing them varying degrees of distress.
The film is most effective in its ‘60s sequences, as it shows in riveting detail how the team, despite conflicts and squabbles, plans and carries out its high-risk mission. When “The Debt” shifts to scenes featuring the older versions of the characters, the relationships and motivations become fuzzier. Part of that is due to the fact that the older characters, as well as the movie, are keeping secrets until pretty far along.
Chastain, this summer and fall’s It Girl (with “Tree of Life” and “The Help” having already opened and “Texas Killing Fields” and the next Terrence Malick movie still to come), gives a vivid performance as the young Rachel. She and the always-fascinating Mirren are a seamless match, with both displaying a tense physicality.
Worthington shows a greater range and vulnerability here than he did in either “Avatar” or “Clash of the Titans,” where he mostly just flexed his pecs. He may be a genuine movie star yet.
Opening in the final days of summer, “The Debt” is a sharp harbinger of fall, signaling that the grown-up movie season is just around the bend.