British director takes on dark Israeli spy tale

Britain's John Madden, whose "Shakespeare in Love" won seven Oscars in 1999, broaches a starkly different world with his new movie "The Debt," a spy thriller plumbing deep psychological depths.

The film, which hit US cinemas this week, stars Helen Mirren in a tale about three Mossad agents who capture a Nazi in the 1960s, before zooming forward to depict their reflections on their own past actions.

Sixty-two year-old Madden, who made 2001's "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" before moving into more action-movie territory with "Proof" in 2005 and "Killshot" in 2008, says his latest picture combines two passions.

"At one level it's a chamber piece and on another level it's an action movie. And I think that those two things are a very interesting combination to me and gives the movie a particular spring, a particular tension," he told AFP.

"Technically, a thriller is an exciting and challenging form to work in, and something that is so purely cinematic. It's a form that works better in the cinema than it does in literary form, I think," he added.

A Hollywood remake of a 2007 Israeli film of the same name by director Assaf Bernstein, "The Debt" shifts between action in two different times.

In the first, the Mossad trio capture a Nazi war criminal in Berlin in the mid-1960s, but are forced to go to ground and hold him captive in an apartment after an operation to transfer him to Israel fails.

In the second, the movie follows the three agents in Tel Aviv in the 1990s as sixty-somethings linked by the secret of their past actions, which weigh heavily on their consciences.

"It's about people who are about to disintegrate through fear and anxiety and panic, and that seemed really interesting material to work with," said Madden.

"It's about how the past effects the present... and the life you're telling the world and yourself, what arrangements you've made with yourself. I think we all do that in our lives all the time. We mythologize our own past."

He was drawn to the script by the intimate story, the tense ties between the three, played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington in the 1960s, and Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds in the present day.

"There's no air. That feeling never leaves you. You want to know, Why all this? And I think that that's the way the movie engages with people, more than through the big subject of the Holocaust.

"Clearly the whole movie is infused with history but it's the sense of what we did or didn't do in our lives that makes us morally who we are at that moment, that everybody understands.

The dark nature of the film does not worry him. "I suppose I am resistant to the easy kind of resolution of the stories that mainstream Hollywood seems to trade in, that somehow everything works out," he said.

"I like more complicated scenarios, psychologically, emotionally and morally perhaps. Where the audience is let grappling when it walks out the cinema. That's the place I enjoy being."

Early reviews have been mixed, with some highlighting technical issues such as possible miscasting of physically unsimilar actors playing the younger and older versions of the characters, or questions of chronology.

"As a thriller, 'The Debt' performs many if not all the right moves. Where the... film gets into trouble is in wanting to deal with the Holocaust without being entirely a period film," said the Hollywood Reporter.

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