The Debt

JONATHAN SENIOR reviews Nazi-hunting kick-ass Mossad movie starring Helen Mirren and Sam Worthington.

Action Films Film film review helen mirren john madden nazi the debt thriller

Directed by John Madden


The Debt is an extremely well-made, intelligent and meaningful film, but it cannot quite be described as enjoyable.

In the crowd of generic thrillers this film stands out not just because it is more cerebral but also because it is so much bleaker. This is not simply a film about a Mossad mission to capture a Nazi war criminal. It is a more ambitious – and largely successful – effort that follows three agents whose commitment to their mission reflects the larger “debt” to the dead felt by many in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

We follow Rachael Singer (played by Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren), David Peretz (Sam Worthington/Ciarán Hinds) and Stefan Gold (Marton Csokas/Tom Wilkinson) in two separate time periods. Chastain, Worthington and Csokas feature during the mission to capture Dieter Vogel, the “surgeon of Birkenau,” in early-Cold War East Germany, whilst the later period shows the three agents – now guilt-ridden but famed for their heroic actions on that mission – in 1997.

Rapid shifts in time at the start of the film disorientate à la the opening scenes of Inception – preparing us for the uncomfortable ride that is The Debt – but from 10 minutes in the narrative starts to settle down. Events now move in largely chronological order, with flashbacks or repeated scenes used sparingly but effectively for emphasis. Overall, this is a very well edited film, with a plot that patiently reveals twists and further emotional turmoil in both the past and present-day scenes.

Particular poignancy is, for example, provided by the gradual realisation that the older Rachael has made the same mistakes as her younger self; the film is determined to emphasise the inescapable impact of the “debt” to the dead on her relationships, family and career.

It helps that both Chastain and Mirren are highly impressive in their portrayals of this central female character. In Helen Mirren’s performance we have all of the barely-hidden guilt and inner tension that we would expect of the older Rachael (though this is unfortunately accompanied by a pretty ridiculous accent), whilst Chastain takes full advantage of the greater freedom provided by the narrative to visibly teeter on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

The most impressive parts of this film unquestionably come from the earlier time period. Here Rachael suffers as the lone women in a brutal, claustrophobic and male-dominated world, from the moment she is forced to pose as a patient of the Nazi war criminal-turned-gynaecologist to the scenes in the apartment where she is as much of a prisoner as the captured Vogel (brilliantly portrayed in all his chilling, manipulative glory by Jesper Christensen).


Director John Madden does a great job of emphasising the fear, gender discord and weakness experienced by Rachael here, with tense sexual encounters, nightmares that flash into view for mere seconds and fight scenes full of brutal violence, visceral screams and the deafening booms of Thomas Newman’s score. It is harrowing but gripping stuff.

The two male agents, meanwhile, clearly share the same desperate determination to complete their mission, and are portrayed well by Worthington and Csokas in the earlier period. It is just a shame that the character of Stefan receives so little development from the script compared to David’s saddening experience as a Holocaust-survivor.

Aside from this, there is very little to criticise in The Debt right up until the final ten minutes of the film, when the previously impressive plot seems to collapse from exhaustion, leaving a conclusion that simply begs the question: “what?!”

That the previous 100 minutes were so impressive makes the ending particularly disappointing, but it also means that a muddled conclusion is not enough to ruin the film. For its direction, performances and message, The Debt is still well worth seeing.