“Two women. Different eras. One destiny.”
Director: Antti Jokinen
Cast: Laura Birn, Lilsi Tandefelt, Amanda Pilke
Synopsis: A tormented young woman is given a hiding place by an elderly lady and soon they are reminded of their mutual horrendous past.
Scandinavian countries have a reputation for producing grim, depressing movies, and Antti Jokinen’s Purge does little to change that perception. Jokinen’s previous movie was the British-American horror The Resident (2011) which wasn’t particularly well received by critics or audiences, but Purge is an altogether different beast. That’s not to say that it isn’t a horror movie of a kind, but it’s the sort that dwells on the apparently almost commonplace atrocities normal people commit upon one another in times when social order is under threat.
The movie opens in Estonia sometime in the late 20th Century with an old woman, Aliide (Liisi Tandefelt) finding an exhausted young girl (Amanda Pilke) lying in the yard of her modest cabin. Overcoming her suspicion that the girl is ‘bait,’ the old woman takes her into her home and feeds her. The girl’s name is Zara, and she reveals that she has escaped from the human trafficker who had forced her into a life of prostitution. The girl also happens to be the Granddaughter of Aliide’s, sister, and her sudden appearance causes Aliide to reflect on her own past as a young woman during WWII.
During the war, Aliide married a Communist out of self-preservation rather than love. It was a tumultuous time in Estonia, when the Communists were orchestrating a purge of fascists. Aliide’s true love Hans (Peter Franzen) was a fascist, however, and he was also married to her sister, Ingel (Krista Kosonen). As the political situation intensified, so did Aliide’s obsession with Hans, who took to hiding in a secret cupboard in the house he shared with Ingel and their young daughter, Linda (Sonja Nuganen), in order to avoid being rounded up by the Communists.
Although cinematographer Rane Ronkainen bathes much of what takes place in a warming golden glow, there’s not much light shines through Jokinen and Marko Leino’s debilitating story. The emotional bleakness that grows increasingly pervasive as the story goes on is such that many viewers will find the experience truly draining. There seems little room for hope in the world Jokinen creates, just a grinding existence bereft of humour or happiness. Little wonder then that the young Aliide (played by Laura Birn) obsesses over Hans, the one thing in her life that offers some semblance of hope for happiness, no matter how forlorn it may be. However, almost unknowingly, she allows the precariousness of Hans’ situation to tip her obsession over into a possessiveness that sees her betray those closest to her. By doing so, Jokinen compares the insidious nature of Aliide’s abuse of her power over Hans with that of the Communist enforcers.
At first glance, the movie could be mistaken for some feminist tract such is the brutal violence visited upon its female characters. Zara is abducted, forced into prostitution, photographed in degrading naked poses to ensure she remains under the control of her ruthless pimp, while the young Aliide is viciously gang-raped by Communist interrogators. All the men apart from Hans are depicted as sadistic bullies to some degree, and Hans, in turn, becomes as much a victim of Aliide as she does of her rapists. But the movie’s theme is the natural instinct to hide — whether physically or emotionally — when it is impossible to flee, and that is an instinct common to both genders. It is their respective strengths which will usually cast the male in the role of abuser, but when circumstances permit, the female can impose an altogether more subtle cruelty.
All of this suffering projects a pretty grim world view, which isn’t really lifted by the film’s redemptive ending. Purge contains the elements of a truly great work, but it’s too demoralising to be one. It goes on too long, pounding us over the skull with its overpowering sense of melancholy and quiet despair until we’re in danger of becoming desensitised to the horrors it depicts.