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MOVIE REVIEW: Espionage thriller ‘The Debt’ pays off

In this film image released by Focus Features, Ciar ... n Hinds, left, and Helen Mirren are shown in a scene from the espionage thriller "The debt." (AP Photo/Focus Features, Laurie Sparham)

In this film image released by Focus Features, Ciar ... n Hinds, left, and Helen Mirren are shown in a scene from the espionage thriller "The debt." (AP Photo/Focus Features, Laurie Sparham)

The Debt

(R)

4 out of 4 stars

"The Debt" is the final movie of the summer and is the least summer-like of a surprisingly strong mid-year roster. With four months of awards-seeking titles to sift through before the end of 2011, it would be safe to say that "The Debt" will end up on many best-of lists and for some at or near the top of the heap.

It should be mentioned that it is a remake of a 2007 film, that was seen by few outside of Israel, where it was produced and some of it is set. Recalling many of the classic political/espionage thrillers of the '70s, "The Debt" takes a perennial social/cinematic foe (Nazis), frames it within a relatively modern context (post-Cold War) while brilliantly utilizing one of the most tired and threadworn of all story devices (flashback).

The big problem with reviewing a movie like "The Debt" (like most astutely spun thrillers) is getting into its nuts-n-bolts without giving too much away. This is a movie where one of its biggest twists takes place before the opening credits have even finished and it doesn't make complete sense until near the end. Add to that four principal characters portrayed by seven performers with a jumpy, out-of-sequence narrative and you're just asking for trouble. This is not one of those don't-blink-or-you-might-miss-something affairs but it's close.

Three decades after they became Israeli heroes, Rachel (Helen Mirren), Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) and David (Ciaran Hinds) meet again at a book release party for a novel written about them. We immediately know all of them are there against their will, but because of their dedicated covert backgrounds, none of them are about to say why.

Way back when all of them were members of the Mossad -- the Israeli equivalent of the CIA -- they were called on to perform a specific service to the state. In the aftermath, all of them looked as if they're ready to implode and all are on a razor's edge.

Cut to Berlin in 1966 where David (Sam Worthington) and Rachel (Jessica Chastain) are pretending to be married and Stephan (Marton Csokas) is pretending to be interested in Rachel. They've been carefully selected to ferret out a former concentration camp doctor (Jesper Christensen) who is now living comfortably under an alias and working as an obstetrician.

Challenged with presenting a complicated narrative in an easy-to-follow but evocative manner, director John Madden ("Mrs. Brown," "Shakespeare in Love") and his three screenwriters go the route of "The Godfather Part II." The filmmakers opt for the back and forth about a half-dozen times while slowly doling out bits and pieces of plot while carefully avoiding giving away any more than what they absolutely have to.

This slow, trickling, borderline torturous method of information release results in a nail-biting affair -- something true thriller fans will relish -- but might actually bother and annoy some less than patient viewers. Some might also interpret the final scene as ambiguous, but within the context of historical mystery, it is gloriously splendid. If you saw "Inglourious Basterds," you'll have an idea of the level of the delayed satisfaction.

The victims and victors in "The Debt" are often the same people at the same time. Victory or defeat in wartime (or in its aftermath) is not necessarily a win or lose proposition. It's walking away knowing you did the right thing, even if it means losing much of yourself in the process. No one emerges unscathed in this winning movie; there are only different levels of survival.

Presented in English with occasional subtitled Hebrew, Russian and German. (Focus Features)