A nasty, angular scar mars the right cheekbone of Rachel Singer, an Israeli intelligence operative played by both Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain in the tense spy drama The Debt. In 1966, Rachel took part in a covert mission in East Berlin that caused emotional damage to match her carved-up face. In The Debt, the scar serves as a symbolic reminder of Rachel's wounded psyche while also helping the audience follow the film's flashback-heavy chronology, and whether a scene takes place before or after the fraught assignment.
The Debt begins in 1997, when Rachel and her former partners, Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) and David (Ciarán Hinds), humbly enjoy the spotlight as legends of Israeli intelligence agency the Mossad. Rachel's grown daughter publishes a book about the 1966 operation while a mysterious revelation emerges to shock the aging trio. The snaking narrative exposes the hidden truth behind the official story.
Three decades earlier, Rachel was a highly trained rookie agent teamed with ambitious Stephan (Marton Csokas) and idealistic David (Sam Worthington) in East Berlin. Sources tentatively identified a local doctor as Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a monstrous medical officer at the Buchenwald concentration camp. If the agents can confirm his identity, they plan to kidnap Vogel to stand trial for crimes against humanity. In one of the most disquieting scenes, Rachel goes undercover as the gynecological patient of a man who may as well be Josef Mengele.
Based on an Israeli film of the same name, The Debt serves as an effective comeback project for Shakespeare in Love director John Madden, who shows a flair for the film's cloak-and-dagger set pieces. The agents plot out how to escape from the Iron Curtain via a "ghost station," an unused platform of a West Berlin train line that passes briefly through the Soviet sector. The second act less confidently emulates Roman Polanski-style paranoia when the operatives, holed up in their safe house, begin to turn on each other.
Avatar's Worthington may be out of his league among the rest of the top-flight actors, but he doesn't embarrass himself. Chastain and Mirren's performances prove neatly symmetrical to each other. As young Rachel, Chastain shoulders the burden of a woman trying to live up to the expectations of not just her teammates, but also the world's demands for justice. As a senior citizen, Mirren conveys the toll of carrying a wrenching secret as well as an obsession with rectifying an old mistake.
The Debt accomplishes its mission as a serious-minded thriller, but its story line doesn't resonate enough with the contemporary zeitgeist to give the film a lasting impact. The sight of Mirren and Chastain's scar proves more memorable that the explanation behind why they have it.