“Truth is a luxury,” says Tom Wilkinson in “The Debt.” “Some people have to put other things first — their country, their family.” As far as justifications for lying go, that’s a pretty good one, and Wilkinson delivers it with his usual conviction. Some of us might even take his side with regard to the specific issue being discussed. The movie does not, however. Based on a 2007 Israeli film, “The Debt” doesn’t permit much wiggle room on matters of right and wrong, but it’s an intelligent, well-crafted, and grown-up espionage thriller.
We are introduced to two timelines. In 1966, a trio of Mossad operatives arrive at an Israeli military airport. One of them, a woman, has a bandage on her cheek. In 1997, a journalist is publishing a book about her mother, Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), who is evidently famous for some reason and whose facial scar tells us who she is. Other tantalizing details are established: Rachel has had a frosty separation from her husband, Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson), who presumably was one of the men she worked with in 1966. He’s now in a wheelchair. A third operative, David Peretz (Ciaran Hinds), has been invited to the book-release luncheon, but has found a way to avoid it. We can see that a lot has happened in the intervening 30 years, and we want to find out what. We’re hooked.
I’ll let the film fill you in on the details, since that is what the film does best. Smoothly directed by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) from a screenplay by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (the duo behind “Kick-Ass” and “X-Men: First Class”) and Peter Straughan (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”), “The Debt” jumps back and forth in time prudently and effectively, providing new information about 1965-66 that sheds light on the situation in 1997.
In general terms, though: The young Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas), and David (Sam Worthington), are Mossad agents on an undercover mission in East Berlin. Rachel and David must pose as a married couple, and all three live together in close quarters. The mission, which involves an OB/GYN named Dr. Bernhardt (Jesper Christensen), requires patience and careful planning, and the mechanics of it are provided in scintillating detail.
In the meantime, Rachel adjusts to working with the passionate, hotheaded Stephan and the enigmatic David. She has a personal stake in the mission, too (it was inevitable that someone would) and must walk the line between steely Mossad agent and vulnerable human being. Jessica Chastain, already a breakout in “The Tree of Life” and “The Help,” conveys Rachel’s tension and emotion skillfully, supported by strong performances by Csokas and Worthington. The latter has been criticized (quite rightly) for being wooden and inscrutable, but here those traits are appropriate.
Mirren, Wilkinson, and Hinds have significantly less screen time than their younger counterparts, but they make the most of it like the seasoned professionals they are. Mirren even gets to deploy some of the old-lady-kicks-butt skills that were underused in last year’s “RED” — always a welcome sight. It may not be the deepest or most resonant action-drama of the year, but it’s respectable, solidly constructed entertainment.
B (1 hr., 44 min.; )