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Mossad's 'I've Got a Secret' Pays Off in 'Debt'

August 31, 2011 By:
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Secret service men -- and woman -- make up "The Debt": Helen Mirren is flanked by Tom Wilkinson (left) and Ciaran Hinds. Photos by Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

Ménage a Mossad?

Three is not the charm as deployed in The Debt, which goes through the trials and terror of a trio of Mossad agents of the '60s inexcusably failing to execute a plan to kidnap and carry a Nazi war criminal from his disguise of a life in East Berlin to Israel for prosecution.

In their failure comes the success of The Debt, an enormously entertaining and enterprising remake of the Israeli film Ha-Hov(2007), in which the Israeli secret service serves up a totally different picture of what had been shown as honed at efficiency and excellence.

Mossad post-Munich was one mission.

Mossad as messed up in The Debt quite another.

Which is what we get in The Debt, which owes more than a paycheck to director John Madden, whose depiction of the maddeningly complex kidnap scheme and ineptitude of the trio chills as it spills out a diorama of deception and decayed morality.

Any crypto messages about krav maga? The Cambridge-educated director laughs at the mere idea that he has taken a chop at the Israel martial art so artfully displayed in The Debt. Yes, he kids, it helped him get what he wants on set: "I would yell, 'Keep out of my way!' "

It was his own take on cinematic art -- not the martial kind -- that got him his way and that earned respect, with acclaim and accolades coming for Ethan Frome, TV's Prime Suspect: The Lost Child (starring Debt headliner Helen Mirren); Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown, Shakespeare in Love (an Oscar nominee for his work on the Oscar-winning pic) andProof.

Proof that you can improve on a genre -- and The Debt pays off as topnotch thriller-chiller material -- is his upgrade of a take on Ha-Hov, which Madden viewed as "a chamber piece" and then proceeded to put bullets in the chambers to fire off his own victory of a version. (Debt producer Eitan Evan served in the same capacity on the Israeli original.)

As Mossad misfits, the three agents are no match that Yenta would be proud of: All damaged psychologically by their links to Holocaust tragedy, the two men and one woman fall in lust and loss in a romantic roundelay that makes for a Mossad moshpit.

Is This Any Way to Conduct Espionage?

Love, look at the three of them? Where's their professionalism and precision, the dispassionate dimension conjured up by years of living dangerously?

"It's a useful reminder," reminds Madden, "that there was an ad hoc quality to Mossad in its early years, and that things" -- including sex and the sedition -- "don't always go by the plan."

Madden's movie plans are filled with panache aplenty, here evoking exquisite acting accomplishments from actors as compatriots conducting their ultimate unpatriotic act (Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds, as the three agents in older age).

The acclaimed director of Broadway's Grown Ups (1981), cartoonist Jules Feiffer's fiery three-dimensional evocation of a Jewish family at war with itself, Madden's mature approach to art pays off again here. "I resist the kind of simplification" seen in other story lines of relationships, he concedes.

"Complexity is the point."

He offers a tip of the hat also to moviegoers who get that point: "Audiences deserve to be treated as grown ups."

And here, in The Debt -- fiction at its most convincing -- purchasing an adult ticket gains admission to a confession that the Israeli secret service's secret wasn't always in service to its country.

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