Undercover role for Mirren as Israeli agent

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The Independent Culture

The last time Dame Helen Mirren teamed up with Miramax Films, she stole scores of American hearts with her uncannily accurate portrayal of the Queen, in the box office smash of the same name.

Britain's current leading lady has this week once again teamed up with the company to tackle a less regal if no more loaded role: that of a guilt-ridden Israeli Nazi hunter given the chance to redeem herself after 30 years of lies.

Producers for the The Debt confirmed yesterday that Mirren, 63, will play Rachel Singer, a Mossad agent who lies about killing a Nazi war criminal in the 1960s. She is forced to return to work when her alleged victim reappears three decades later.

The film's director, John Madden, who achieved success with Shakespeare in Love, said Mirren was perfect for the role, which he described as "a national celebrity and retired Mossad agent, a formidable and dignified woman grappling with years of emotional disappointment, suddenly confronted by a powerful and unexpected choice". Madden describes the script as an intense psychological thrill. "It is a tremendously compelling read."

Filming will begin next year in Israel, Germany and Britain. Jonathan Ross's wife, Jane Goldman, has written the English-language script. Kris Thykier, who co-produces the film, said yesterday: "The film is about three Mossad agents who are sent into East Berlin in the 1960s to extract a man known as the 'Surgeon of Birkenau' who is masquerading as a real doctor. The capture goes wrong and, 30 years later, Mirren's character is sent back to do the job again."

For the earlier scenes, Rachel Singer will be played by a younger actress. Mirren will play the Mossad agent in the present day. Further details of the film are being kept under wraps but it is a reworking of HaHov, a little-known but well-received Hebrew-language film from last year, directed by the Israeli director Assaf Bernstein.

In Bernstein's version, Rachel Singer and the two other agents are hailed as heroes after they claim to have killed the Surgeon of Birkenau. The Nazi war criminal in fact survived the assassination attempt and the agents have to live with the knowledge that their hero status is based on a lie.

Three decades later, a decrepit old man suffering from dementia claims to be the Surgeon. The agents fear their deception will be exposed to the public and are torn over whether they should return to their original mission.

Secret power: Mossad

*Mossad – translated as "institution" – is the Hebrew nickname given to Israel's foreign intelligenceservices. Alongside Shin Bet (internal security) and Aman (militaryintelligence), it is charged withdefending the state of Israel. Officially known as the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, Mossad traces it roots to the anti-British struggle in Palestine. Mossad's "Kidon" department has executive powers to carry outkidnappings and assassinations.