The Debt, directed by Shakespeare in Love’s John Madden, is an espionage thriller that offers a bit more than your average thriller would offer. Where the average one would focus on the mission at hand and sacrifice character development, The Debt takes us into a tense romantic triangle between three Mossad secret agents on a mission to capture a Josef Mengle-type Nazi war criminal, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the feared Surgeon of Birkenau, in East Berlin. The overall effect of inserting a love-triangle into the mix is both it’s strength and it’s weakness.

The story begins in 1997, when retired Mossad agent Rachel Singer (Academy Award Winner Helen Mirren) receives shocking news from her ex-husband and fellow retired Mossad agent Stephan (Academy Award nominee Tom Wilkinson) about the death of their former colleague David (Ciarán Hinds) and long-held secret that they shared during their mission in 1965-1966. All three are venerated agents and Rachel’s daughter has recwently published a book about her mother’s courageous secret mission that brought down the feared Vogel.

Taking place mostly in flashback (with the corresponding trio played respectively by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington), the film manages to capture the suspense and edge-of-your-seat feeling that makes up a good thriller. The younger counterparts work well together to mimic the older cast’s mannerisms, but it’s Chastain’s performance that captures the internal conflicts that this mission elicits. All three have lost loved ones to Nazis and therein lie their eagerness to bring this monster to justice. When the operation hits a snag and they’re left holding Vogel in the safe house until another plan can be arranged, the dynamics turn dark as Vogel gets in their heads. Worthington is a good choice for the sullen, quiet David, who is like a firecracker with a short fuse.

As they must share round-the-clock guard duty in shifts, all three agents must face alone time with Vogel. During the scenes between Christensen and Chastain, the script really shines through. Madden deftly heightens the suspense and layers the characters with humanity. There is a moment in the film and is skillfully carried well by Christensen, that allows for some compassion for this man. Vogel genuinely feels concern for the well-being of his wife and asks about her. For a second, you forget this man is responsible for the painful death of thousands of innocent people. Chastain’s Rachel is repulsed by this man, but at the same time, she’s forced to see him as a man that must be taken care of while under her watch.

The bit of surprises in the script make The Debt a satisfying film by director best known for romantic films. Still, much to his credit, the film is never stale and it moves at perfectly placed action beats that move the story along. The screenplay by Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, adapted from the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov (The Debt) seems a bit lopsided, favoring the love triangle between the trio of Mossad secret agents. Where opportunities to delve further into the psyche of these damaged agents on a hunt for a real-life monster, the script, instead, dips into melodrama and muddles the plot just slightly.