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Don't overlook this spy-thriller

With some other great films currently out, it would be easy to miss The Debt - don't

Released in the same month as the long-anticipated adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it might be tempting to overlook spy-thriller The Debt.

This would be a real shame, because although lacking the keen expectations of its big-name contemporary, The Debt is a well-paced and thought-provoking thriller that fully deserves a look.

The story follows three young Mossad agents – Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) - who are dispatched to East Germany in the mid-1960s on the hunt for a fictional Nazi war criminal, Dieter Vogel (colourfully described, with echoes of Mengele, as ‘The Surgeon of Birkenau'). Capturing Vogel (Jesper Christensen), now working as a gynaecologist under an assumed name, the trio imprisons him in their dilapidated apartment while planning their return to Israel. The extraction plan is bungled, however, and the undercover unit find themselves trapped in East Berlin, (and for the most part trapped in the apartment) with only each other, and the insidious presence of Vogel for company.

As such, the film neatly divides itself into two parts. The first component is a no-nonsense spy-thriller, with all the usual trimmings of secret meetings, coded messages, and hidden cameras.

The second is more unusual, with Vogel's lengthy imprisonment, and the subsequent disintegration of the team's morale, taking place in a much more domestic setting. These sequences are the most satisfying, with director John Madden evoking a real sense of claustrophobia and mounting panic.

For me, The Debt ceased to be a spy film at this point and instead became a kind of psychological thriller, a human drama that just happened to concern a team of secret agents. If anything, the film began to feel reminiscent of those great hostage dramas such as Misery, in which the complicated relationships between kidnapper and hostage are explored.

Nonetheless, The Debt has its weaknesses. Most prominent among these, unfortunately, is the involvement of the older cast members, Ciaran Hinds, Helen Mirren, and Tom Wilkinson, who play the same trio of characters reflecting on their actions 30 years after the main narrative. Aside from bearing only the vaguest physical resemblance to their younger counterparts, this part of the story feels somewhat leaden and unsatisfying, the interesting reflections on vengeance and morality exchanged for a rather hysterical drama of collective guilt and a (highly implausible) attempted assassination sequence.

Helen Mirren is always a likeable screen presence, but she simply has too little to work with here, and without giving away too much of the conclusion, I felt the film rather loses its way in the final section.

Still, there is much here to enjoy. The 1960s segment is tautly written and acted, and Jesper Christensen is entertaining as the deliciously serpentine war criminal. All in all, a more than credible alternative to the Le Carré adaptation otherwise dominating our screens. Recommended.

Rating: ***

N2 film reviews – supported by Newbury Vue

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