In the taut espionage thriller “The Debt,” Helen Mirren pulls off the impressive trick of dominating the movie even while she’s absent for huge chunks of its running time.
Based on the 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov,” “The Debt” has a two-tier structure. In 1997 Tel Aviv, Mirren plays Rachel Singer, a former Mossad secret agent revered for her successful handling of a mid-1960s mission in which she and two male colleagues_Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) and David (Ciaran Hinds) — tracked down a notorious Nazi war criminal (Jesper Christensen).
Her thoughts frequently return to that time, and the movie takes us there for long stretches, with younger Rachel played in flashbacks by Jessica Chastain, Stephan by Marton Csokas (who looks, in this movie, uncannily like Wilkinson might have 30 years ago) and David by Sam Wo r t h i n g t o n .
When we first meet Mirren’s character, her daughter has just published a book about Rachel’s heroism, and Rachel is clearly uncomfortable with the attention. Mirren’s posture is tight and her gaze wary.
The flashbacks, set in a shadowy East Berlin apartment and culminating on a dark, rainy night, eventually tell us why, and Mirren takes center stage in the film’s final third for a postscript to the story.
John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) directs the film in an almost breathless rush, which works surprisingly well. The strong cast makes their performances register in what could have been, in less skilled hands, a routine thriller.
The radiant Chastain — one of those rare actors who seems to create her own light — is steely yet vulnerable as young Rachel, and Csokas and Worthington circle her in a delicate, dangerous triangle.
It’s uncanny, though, how Mirren seems to be on-screen when she isn’t, making such an impression with her chilly presence in the early scenes that we spend much of “The Debt” appreciating the drama of the flashbacks but waiting for Mirren to return.
You ponder how Chastain’s performance fits into Mirren’s; how Mirren suggests a lifetime of conflict just by tightening her voice; how Mirren’s Rachel, late in the film, faces danger with an unblinking resolve, something her younger self was still learning.
Hiding within this spy thriller is a master class in acting, well worth attending.