by Tim Ross
Hollywood favors the young. Female ingénues with flawless skin and hard-bodied action heroes abound in La-La Land. It’s a world where actresses often find themselves out of work by 40. Unless, of course, they’re Helen Mirren.
The 66-year-old star of “The Debt” is as sexy and dangerous as ever, and she’s joined by the equally-powerful Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds. The three veteran actors add gravitas to an already dark, intriguing film.
The story opens in 1966 as a team of special agents are returning from a mission to hunt down a Nazi war criminal in Berlin. The agents, Rachel (Jessica Chastain), David (Sam Worthington) and Stephen (Marton Csokas) have returned without the man they sought, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a Nazi doctor who conducted horrific experiments on Jews.
Although empty-handed, the agents tell a heroic story of capturing Vogel and killing him as he attempted to escape. Having pulled the trigger, young Rachel gets the most praise.
Fast-forward 31 years, and Rachel (Mirren) is a graceful, capable woman whose daughter has written a book about her mother’s exploits. Mirren plays Rachel as both troubled and angry, possibly because her actions of the past are just too painful to relive and she wears fame uncomfortably. As the story unfolds, however, we find the truth is far more complicated and subjective.
The most compelling aspect of the film is it becomes less a thriller and more of an examination of the power of truth and the destructiveness of living a lie.
The young trio of actors is nearly as strong as the veterans and Chastain is assuredly one of the fastest-rising young stars in Hollywood. Only Worthington stands out in a negative way – the young Australian, introduced to a large audience with his star turn in “Avatar,” struggles with the accent.
That small complaint aside, the story moves along fluidly as we’re seamlessly transported back and forth through time, which serves the story on multiple levels. It reveals the deep, irrevocable effects of decades of deceit, but also deftly reveals how a 30-year-old painful memory can feel like yesterday for those who lived it.
John Madden directs the thriller with precision and Thomas Newman’s score adds a driving, pulsing beat to a film that evokes questions with no simple answers – a notable, somewhat rare occurrence in Hollywood of late.
Kudos for the richly-woven story belongs to Madden and the writing team of Matthew Vaughn (“X-Men: First Class”), Jane Goldman (“Kick-Ass”) and Peter Straughan (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”), but it never hurts to have heavy hitters like Mirren and Wilkinson sharing the screen with a star-in-the-making like Chastain. The makers of “The Debt” didn’t waste their assemblage of talent and the film ends up profiting handsomely because of them.
Grade: 3 out of 4
MPAA Rating: R for some violence and language
Cast: Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington,
Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Chastain
Studio: Focus Features