Helen Mirren, The Debt

Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

Review in a Hurry: Heil, Helen! Decades after World War II, the Queen of England—Helen Mirren, that is—hunts a former Nazi doctor who escaped incarceration. Sounds irresistible, yes? Strong performances and direction make this gripping espionage thriller a mission accomplished.

The Bigger Picture: Director John Madden has built his career helming period pieces (Shakespeare in Love), character dramas (Proof), and thrillers (Killshot). In this remake of a 2007 Israeli thriller, he gets to combine all of the above, along with multiple locations, flashbacks, and different actors playing the same roles. The result is surprisingly cohesive.

In the mid-1960s, three Israeli secret agents—Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas), and David (Sam Worthington)—go on a covert mission to bring a Nazi war criminal to justice. They succeed in tracking down Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the notorious "Surgeon of Birkenau," in East Berlin, though at great personal sacrifice.

For decades, they're heralded as heroes. But in 1997, elderly Rachel (Mirren) and ex-husband/partner Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) receive shocking news about David and additional details involving Vogel. All the while, Rachel struggles with her feelings for David, the real spy who loved her, and the need to confront the past.

Despite the extended-flashback structure, the film maintains a fluid pace, deftly shifting between periods—as well as between personal dramas (ah, a love triangle!) and international espionage. But the third act raises plausibility questions when it employs plot contrivances to restage a critical showdown.

Madden creates pulse-racing suspense sequences, notably Vogel's kidnapping and an attempted escape at a heavily guarded train station. Plus, he coaxes solid perfs from his game cast. As young Rachel, Chastain displays a Jennifer Garner-esque mix of vulnerability and kick-assitude, while Mirren embodies the older, haunted character with the physical and emotional scars from so many battles and lies.

Christensen is deliciously vile as the now-undercover gynecologist, creepily examining Rachel, who poses as a patient, and then probing the psyches of his captors. He's like a Hannibal Lecter of the Third Reich, shudder.

Pay up for this Debt.

The 180—a Second Opinion: The Debt owes a debt to countless female-centric thrillers with its done-to-death training scene of a woman proving to the big boys that she too can kick butt.

  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Share