A tale of guilt and redemption in the trappings of a spy melodrama, John Madden’s English adaptation of the 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov” jumps back and forth between the 1960s and 1990s in telling a story about an intelligence operation gone wrong that gives rise to lies that threaten to unravel decades later. “The Debt” is a sober, well-meaning picture that aims to raise serious issues about truth and justice, but like Roman Polanski’s “Death and the Maiden” (1994), it’s ultimately undone by its own dour earnestness, though it’s not the claustrophobic exercise that one was.
The film opens in 1997, when ex-Mossad agent Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) is being feted for her role in killing a Nazi war criminal named Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the so-called “Surgeon of Birkenau,” in East Berlin some twenty years earlier—a feat celebrated in her daughter’s new book. The reception is attended by her ex-husband Stefan (Tom Wilkinson), still in government despite being confined to a wheelchair, who had headed the team that got Vogel. But it’s also the occasion for the return—after a long absence—of the third member of their cell, David (Ciaran Hinds), whose sad face encapsulates his discomfort over the event, and who shortly after his arrival commits suicide.
The reason behind his desperation is soon revealed in flashbacks to the actual mission, with the roles now taken by Jessica Chastain (Rachel), Marton Csokas (Stefan) and Sam Worthington (David). The original intent was to kidnap Vogel, who was practicing as a gynecologist in the city, and return him to Israel for trial. But the attempt went awry, and the agents became a hunted trio, locked up in a dingy apartment with the captive German, who toyed with them until Rachel supposedly shot him in an escape attempt. That, at least, was the story they decided to tell. In reality, though, Vogel had escaped and disappeared. Rachel and Stefan had maintained their lie for two decades, and with David’s return their secret—for various reasons—threatens to unravel.
As structured by Madden, writers Matthew Vaughn Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan and editor Alexander Berner, “The Debt” shuffles between the sixties and the nineties, with the treatment of each timeframe showing strengths and weaknesses. The flashbacks contain a couple of well-built suspense sequences, one depicting Vogel’s abduction and the other a botched attempt to get him across the border via train. Some of the cat-and-mouse conversations between the young agents and their captive possess a subtle menace, and the scenes in which Vogel examines Rachel professionally have genuine creepiness. On the other hand, the relationships that develop among the Israelis, with their romantic overtones, are unduly contrived and comparatively stolid. And one has a difficult time connecting them emotionally with what presumably occurred in the intervening years.
The “modern” portion of the picture is even more troublesome. Some of the moments between Mirren and Wilkinson have a grimly fatalistic quality, but Hinds appears at sea in a thankless role. And in the film’s latter stages, when Rachel must come out of retirement to go to Ukraine and save their version of the past, the thriller aspects of “The Debt” come unglued, with the action increasingly preposterous. The denouement, moreover, aims for a truth-is-everything resolution that in fact raises more questions than it answers.
As usual, Madden proves a solid craftsman, and he secures good performances, with Mirren and Chastain ably carrying most of the burden as the two Rachels, though Christensen makes a suitably unpleasant villain, unrepentant and nasty beneath a veneer of culture. Jim Clay’s production design is particularly effective in the East German segments, capturing the dismal period detail, and Thomas Newman’s score complements the visuals adequately.
Ultimately, though, “The Debt” is fully convincing neither as pure Cold War thriller nor as rumination on the dangers of deception and the cost of moral repair.