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Secrets and Lies

The Debt echoes '70s espionage films


Since the world premiere of this John Madden-directed potboiler at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2010, I've been telling anyone who will listen, "Wait until you see The Debt. It's a crackerjack thriller."

Finally, now in late August--a terrible spot for a movie to be dumped into--The Debt is here.

The Debt opens in 1997. Three retired Israeli agents have been hailed as heroes since hunting an escaped Nazi villain in 1960s Berlin. Only they know the truth, and they are now in danger of being exposed. Viewers are whisked back to the Cold War era to see what happened and it works beautifully because the cast is an interesting amalgam of new school/old school: Sam Worthington (Avatar), Jessica Chastain (The Help) and Marton Csokas (Lord of the Rings) are the young agents. Their 21st century incarnations are, respectively, played by Ciaran Hinds (The Sum of All Fears), Helen Mirren (The Queen) and Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton). Jesper Christensen (Casino Royale) overly but deliciously plays the villain, Dieter Vogel, known as "the surgeon of Birkenau," a purveyor of horrific medical experiments, with impenitence.

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The Debt's source material is the little-seen Israeli drama Ha-Hov and the contemporary film far surpasses its predecessor. The Debt moves at a brisk pace and never compromises intelligence for the sake of action, of which there is plenty. The film is readily reminiscent of '70s political thrillers like The Boys From Brazil and The Odessa File. And it's just as good.

The best that can be said for The Debt is that it is in the capable hands of professionals. Madden (Shakespeare In Love) never overplays his hand, considering the density of the plot. Hinds, Wilkinson and particularly Mirren again prove that they are among the finest of character actors even in leading roles and Chastain matches Mirren pound-for-pound. Even though the two look nothing alike, they are completely believable as they share the role of an unlikely spy.

Detailed production design from Jim Clay (Match Point) is particularly impressive, given that his spot-on sets range from an eerie Cold War hospital to a gloomy East Berlin apartment, all re-imagined at London's Ealing Studios. High praise goes to the writing team of Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class) and Peter Straughan (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).

The Debt includes all the elements of an accomplished adult drama: action, performance and story. Themes of overcoming regret, courage vs. cunning and good vanquishing evil never fail to satisfy.