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Movie Review

'The Debt': Getting in a little over its head?

By Mike Giuliano

2:40 PM EDT, September 2, 2011

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Even though World War II ended in 1945, it has never ended at the movies. Based on a 2007 Israeli film, "The Debt" is a new English-language film about the decades-long hunt for a Nazi doctor who conducted horrible procedures at a concentration camp.

The serious subject matter ensures that attention will be paid to "The Debt." It generally merits that attention, but director John Madden's slickly packaged thriller often feels superficial rather than profound.

Although important ethical issues are raised, much of the cinematic time is spent jumping around between the various places and times that factor into the story. The espionage-oriented narrative and correspondingly busy editing scheme are probably necessary for this particular story, but "The Debt" often seems like it's obsessed with such procedural moves.

The so-called Surgeon of Birkenau, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), escaped justice at the end of the war. Years later, the Israeli secret police force known as the Mossad tracks down the elusive fugitive and plans to kidnap him at an East Berlin apartment in 1966.

It would not be fair to disclose the ultimate outcome of that abduction plan, so suffice it to say that another plot component is set around 30 years later. You get to see how participants in that now-distant Berlin episode are faring in Tel Aviv in 1997.

The time-skipping story is a viable way to convey just how difficult it can be to achieve justice, but the busy mechanics of the storytelling threaten to overwhelm the story itself.

Another challenge faced by the filmmakers is that two sets of actors are required to play several of the main characters as they appeared in the 1960s and then in the 1990s. The casting is not entirely convincing where the principal female agent is concerned, because the two actors don't exactly have the same physical features.

Up-and-coming star Jessica Chastain plays that Israeli agent, Rachel Singer, as a young woman, while the veteran star Helen Mirren plays Rachel as an older woman. They both give adequate performances, but you may not feel as if they're playing the same person.

A related concern is that Mirren and Tom Wilkinson, the actor playing Rachel's ex-husband, Stephen Gold, are very self-conscious about taking their accents deep into Central European territory. It doesn't help any that the script by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan provides these and other characters with often stilted dialogue to deliver.

Although the movie strenuously reaches for a moral gravity that it does not quite achieve, there are individual scenes that do pack an emotional punch. When the Israeli agents hold the Nazi doctor prisoner in that grim Berlin apartment in 1966, there are tense conversations that make you realize the extent to which these characters are still fighting World War II. Grade: B-

"The Debt" (R) is now playing at area theaters.