John Madden has a British accent and an English-lit degree from Cambridge. But even if he were a community college dropout, the man who directed “Shakespeare in Love” and “Mrs. Brown” would inevitably be associated with bookish costume dramas. The genial filmmaker, at a Georgetown hotel to promote his new movie, “The Debt,” acknowledges that reputation with a hearty laugh.
Yet he began directing thrillers and police procedurals in British television. These included a “Prime Suspect” TV movie starring Helen Mirren, who is also appearing in Madden’s new movie, which opens Wednesday in Washington. The thriller, he says, is “a form I really like . . . because it’s exacting, and a very distilled form of storytelling.”
Adapted from “Ha-Hov,” an Israeli film, “The Debt” tells two interlocking stories. In the first, a trio of Mossad agents travel to East Berlin in 1966 to apprehend a doctor who conducted barbaric experiments at a Nazi concentration camp. In the second, set in 1997, they face the repercussions when the official account of their mission starts to unravel.
The red-faced, bristle-haired 62-year-old director decided to remake “Ha-Hov” because it reminded him of “a certain kind of film that I grew up on. A political thriller, or at least a thriller that was rooted in character, psychology and perhaps political circumstance — with some moral questions thrown in.”
Given the German doctor’s infamies, the moral questions in “The Debt” are profound. “The last thing I would want to do,” says Madden, “is take a subject that exists in the long shadow of the Holocaust and use it as a peg to hang a thumping good revenge thriller on.”
The filmmaker, naturally, doesn’t want to reveal much of the plot, in which a few crucial scenes are replayed in alternate ways. But he acknowledges that “there are a number of patterns within the story. . . . It engages the viewer in a kind of puzzle.”
The narrative puzzle also led to a casting one, since Madden had to find not one but two actors for each of the three Mossad agents. “I started with Helen. She’s the core of the story. The point of departure is Helen’s character at a very specific moment in her life.
“I knew her, obviously, and we had a strong working relationship. She’s always been a fearless actress. She’s not particularly worried about whether she lands on her feet or her face,” he says. “But her cinema career did not completely come into focus until she played ‘The Queen.’ At which point, I think she relaxed completely. And she was already a very relaxed actress.”
The director next turned to the younger version of Mirren’s character. Despite studio skepticism, he insisted on an unknown. Otherwise, he says, “I’m sure that would have become the issue: How this famous actress turned into Helen Mirren.”
He chose Jessica Chastain, who had recently filmed “Tree of Life” with maverick director Terence Malick.
The director then cast the two younger men, picking Martin Csokas and an actor who had also just filmed a movie that would later attract attention: “Avatar” star Sam Worthington. The roles of their older selves went to Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson.
For the German doctor, Madden again wanted someone who American and British audiences would not recognize. He selected Danish actor Jesper Christensen, “who, to my delight, turned out to be fluent in German. And fluent in English, to make my life easier while I was directing him.”
The character of the doctor is central to the movie. While his crimes are not excused, he is shown to be not simply a monster. Meanwhile, the Mossad agents undermine their noble endeavor with missteps, both professional and personal.
“You are very, very close up to these people,” Madden says about the sequence in which three Israelis hold the doctor in an East Berlin apartment, essentially captives of their prisoner. “The core of the film is an intense and claustrophobic passage where these four people are thrust up against one another, with very potent results.”
“One of the things I found very compelling about the material,” he adds, “is that almost everybody in the story is teetering on the edge of panic, from the first moments of the film to the last. I think the audience gets that in its bloodstream.”
Three decades later, the Mossad veterans dramatically disagree about how to discuss their 1960s assignment. One of them argues for silence, saying “truth is a luxury.”
“That is a particularly chilling concept,” Madden says. “But one that nevertheless has currency and validity in political discourse. But the only way forward is to acknowledge your failures and to acknowledge your weaknesses — and not to think in the false polarities that, frankly, a lot of mainstream cinematic fare offers us. Which is that villains are villains and heroes are heroes. And heroes always win.”
This opposition, he notes, reflects one of several possible meanings of “The Debt”: “The journey of the film is a realization that you don’t protect someone by contaminating them. . . . that the debt is a debt to truth as much as it is to the moral principles that they set out to prosecute.”
Calling the movie “The Debt” was another thing studio bosses questioned, but Madden says, “If it seems neutral before you go in, I think it has quite a lot of resonance when you come out the other end.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
opens Wednesday in Washington area theaters.