More cerebral than your usual spy thriller is the latest John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Proof) film. A story that flip flops between the 1960s and the 1990s. Madden knows what the strength of his film is – the performances of Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Jesper Cristensen, and Marton Scokas – and so he wisely keeps the focus on the acting/actors. Unlike many spy thrillers this film is character driven with very little action or special effects. Madden keeps the pacing steady and realistic while building tension weaving the past and present together.
The tension is kept on high throughout. I felt nervous from stem to stern. Except for the end (which I will discuss later) it was very well written. It displayed a great ability to surprise using the flashbacks and forwards to great advantage in that effect. The way it is done really makes you question what is real or the truth.
Due to the strong acting of Chastain and Scokas the section of the film told in flashback is riveting. The tension you feel while Rachel is on Vogel’s table being examined and is trying to figure out if he is really the man she is looking for or the dialogue that goes on between the two while she is feeding him as they are holding him hostage is incredible. Cristensen does a marvelous job as the villain and accomplishes disgusting and frightening us without any using any trickery.
These are the moments when the film is its strongest. When they move to the climax is when it all becomes a little preposterous. Making a great actress like Helen Mirren go through that was awful, especially since she had once again turned in such a strong performance. There had to be a better way to resolve the film. I hate when such bad endings are foisted on decent films.
Rachel (Helen Mirren – The Queen, Arthur) is at her daughter’s (Romi Aboulafia – Breaking and Entering) book launch. The year is 1997 and her daughter has written an account of her mother’s dangerous mission with Mossad over 30 years ago to capture a Nazi doctor who committed atrocities on Jews in a concentration camp in Poland. In Israel, since that mission, Rachel has been treated like a hero.
In 1965 three Mossad agents are stationed in East Berlin with the mission of trying to capture the Surgeon of Birkenau. This so-called doctor performed horrific experiments on Jewish prisoners in that camp. David (Sam Worthington – Avatar, Terminator Salvation), Stephen (Marton Csokas – Bourne Supremacy, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) and Rachel (Jessica Chastain – The Help, The Tree of Life) have a plan and are expected to carry it out and return with the doctor to see him go on trial for his crimes.
Rachel is fresh off the potato truck, so to speak, as this is her first Mossad mission. Previously she had worked as a translator. It is quite a step up for her in the rankings to be part of this mission that will attempt to smuggle the doctor across the wall and then back to Israel for trial. The mission is made even trickier due to the obvious attraction between Rachel and David. And rendered even more so when he rejects her only to know that she then sleeps with Stephen. Tension is not something this trio needs more of.
In order to gain access to the doctor, who is now working as an Ob/Gyn in East Berlin, Rachel is posing as a young woman (married to David) who is having trouble getting pregnant so goes to see Dr. Bernhardt/Dieter Vogel (Jesper Cristensen – Casino Royale, The Interpreter) for help. As he is examining her the two talk. Through his polite manners Rachel sees what type of man he is.
Managing to subdue him, drug him and convince his nurse/wife (Brigitte Kren) that he must be taken to the hospital, David and Stephen, posing as ambulance technicians, pick up Bernhardt/Vogel and later collect Rachel. From this point on everything goes wrong with the plan and the three young agents are pretty much left to fend for themselves. What happens afterwards is something that the three will agree to lie about for the rest of their lives.