A remake of the Israeli film ‘Ha Hov’, this starts in 1997 when retired Israeli agent Rachel (Mirren) is attending her daughter’s book launch in Tel Aviv. The book hails Rachel and her cohorts as heroes, but flashbacks start to tell a more complicated story. Stephan (Csokas) meets David (Worthington) and Rachel (Chastain) in East Berlin. Their mission is to track down and kidnap Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (an excellent Jesper Christensen). Since Vogel is working as a gynaecologist and fertility expert, it falls to the unfortunate Rachel to entrap him by posing as a patient (cue awkward examination scenes). Every time she returns to the flat with the two men, the sexual tension escalates and ultimately threatens the success of the mission.
It’s during these flashbacks that the tone of ‘The Debt’ is at its most confident. The goal is clear, the characterisation absorbing and the suspense only slightly marred by an early apparent giveaway. Chastain is terrific as the young Rachel, giving a performance that’s thoughtful, focused and determined. Csokas is deliciously mischievous and irreverent, while ‘Avatar’ star Worthington puts in a much more layered performance than usual, perhaps thanks to his sensitive character whose troubled emotions flicker across his wordless face.
Back in the ’90s, the plotting isn’t so clear. While the actors are magnificent, Wilkinson looks nothing like Csokas, and Hinds is no ringer for Worthington, so it’s easy to confuse them. Their distracting lack of resemblance to their younger selves is liable to pull the audience out of an otherwise gripping scenario.
But while the ending also pushes credibility, it features a stand-out set piece as the older Rachel reluctantly goes back into action. A respectable woman of a certain age, she’s suddenly forced to confront her demons both mentally and physically, resulting in a pensioner punch-up that would almost be comic were it not for Mirren’s ability to make just about anything believable.
This isn’t as slick as director John Madden’s ‘Shakespeare in Love’ or as commercial as other Matthew Vaughn/Jane Goldman screenplays (interestingly, the third writer is Peter Straughan, who co-wrote ‘Tinker, Tailor…’). Nor is it an entirely coherent film. But ‘The Debt’ tackles themes of humanity, revenge and truth so successfully it’s hard not to find it powerful – even if it’s not the Oscar bait it might have hoped to be. Leave that to ‘Tinker’.