Despite cold release date, "The Debt" makes for a solid actor's drama

The Debt (2011)
113 min., rated R.
Grade: B

Premiering at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, "The Debt" was originally scheduled to open in December 2010, in time for the Oscar season. But once the studio was sold by Disney to Filmyard Holdings, the film found its new distributor in Focus Features, being released at the hopeless end of August. That's never a good sign, but considering the pedigree behind and in front of the camera, "The Debt" still comes off solid. 

A remake of a 2007 Israeli film under the same moniker, the story concerns three former Israeli Mossad agents—Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson), and David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds)—who have been long honored as heroes for over thirty years. It begins in 1997, Tel Aviv, where Rachel and Stephan's daughter, Sarah (Romi Aboulafia), has written a book about the trio. That's where the film flashbacks to 1966 in East Berlin when Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas), and David (Sam Worthington) were dispatched for an undercover mission to capture a notorious Nazi criminal-turned-gynecologist, Dr. Dieter Vogel (a chilling Jesper Christensen), the "Butcher of Birkenau," and transport him to Israel to stand trial. Things don't go exactly to plan or as they were written on the page, and a lie that they've kept as an oath for three decades catches up to them during the press of the book. Will one of them come clean? 

Though not quite the taut, sensational espionage thriller as its marketing campaign insists, "The Debt" is classy, very well-acted, and generally absorbing. Skillfully directed by John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love") from an unconvoluted screenplay by Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan, "The Debt" seesaws between both timelines. Madden makes sure the well-stitched story's 1966 section makes up about seventy-five percent of the film's run time since it is the most tense and compelling. The film didn't really need a romantic rivalry, which feels like a wedged-in device to create more internal tension, but it's propelled by the character of Rachel, portrayed with captivating poise and toughness by in-the-moment Chastain and the reliably great Mirren. Both actresses suffer a facial wound on their right cheek that communicates internal emotional scarring as well. Real suspense mounts as the brave Rachel poses as a woman trying to get pregnant, consulting OB/GYN Dr. Vogel, as well as the quietly suspenseful stage-like scenes in which they each take "watch" and feed the imprisoned doc. 

The performances are strong and weighty by the young and old, but on the mistake of the casting directors, Csokas looks more like he'd grow up to be Hinds and Worthington to Wilkinson. Starting out as a drama, "The Debt" fulfills some of its thriller genre promise with climactic surprises and a satisfying justice-must-be-served finale that strains credibility. Still, what an effective film for such a landfill of a release-date month.