On one level - a thrilling and suspenseful level - The Debt is classic espionage, a taut tale of false identity and interrogation, safe houses, and secret border crossings.

On another level, The Debt describes a love triangle, two men vying for the affections of a woman. They are young, ensconced in a strange city, emboldened by the risks they are taking, the threat of death.

And on a third level, The Debt is a study about time and truth, and how it is impossible, really, to come to terms with the lies of the past. They haunt. They hurt.

Now, if only Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain bore the slightest resemblance to each other. And Ciarán Hinds to Sam Worthington, and Tom Wilkinson to Marton Csokas, for that matter.

That's because Mirren and Chastain play the same woman, Rachel Singer, separated by 30-odd years. Hinds and Worthington, likewise, share the role of David Peretz. And Wilkinson and Csokas are Stephan Gold, old and young. The likenesses, or lack of them, create a kind of running distraction in The Debt, as director John Madden flashes back and forth, from 1965 East Berlin to 1997 Tel Aviv.

In the Soviet sector of the German city, Chastain, Worthington, and Csokas' characters share a mission, and an apartment. They've come from Israel to capture a Nazi war criminal, a doctor who performed unspeakable experiments on Jews in the death camps, and who is now believed to be living, and working, under an alias.

In Israel, three decades later, Rachel's daughter has written a book about her mother's cloak-and-dagger adventures, her status as a national hero. Stephan (Wilkinson) still works for the Mossad, while David (Hinds) has cut himself off from his former colleagues. As The Debt toggles back and forth, filling in the blanks, the reason for David's disappearance, and for the shocking way he returns to Tel Aviv, become clear.

What the three pairs of actors lack in semblance (or resemblance), they make up for to a great extent in their performances. Chastain's work is in striking contrast to her portrayal, opposite Brad Pitt, in The Tree of Life. For one thing, she has actual dialogue, but more than that she plays a woman determined to prove herself, fiercely proud and palpably afraid. Csokas has arrogance, and charm. And Worthington, the Avatar and Clash of the Titans star, proves he can actually hold his own opposite real human beings for a change. There are no digitally rendered aliens or mythical beasts in The Debt.

Although there is something mythical about Mirren - she electrifies a room just by walking into it. Weighed down by the past, her Rachel is the central figure in The Debt, a woman with a conscience - a guilty conscience - and one last mission to complete.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/