Purge (Puhdistus): Film Review

Past and present collide in classy literary thriller

Set in Estonia, this lavish Finnish Oscar contender is a multi-generational saga of brutality and revenge.

At the heart of every war film lurks a horror movie, as demonstrated with grisly panache by Finland’s official candidate for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Based on a best-selling novel by Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen, Purge is a gripping and polished hybrid of contemporary thriller and historical melodrama. It features two interwoven plots: one set in post-Communist Estonia, the other during the brutal early years of Soviet occupation at the end of World War II.

A sensational literary success in Nordic nations and beyond, Purge has been translated into 38 languages, won multiple prizes and spawned an opera. Combining the romantic sweep of Doctor Zhivago with the sexually charged violence and feminist-revenge action-thriller elements of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Finnish director Antti Jokinen’s lavish screen adaptation has plenty of potential crossover appeal in foreign markets, particularly if it makes the Oscars shortlist.

The heroine of the contemporary framing plot is Zara (Amanda Pilke), a young pink-haired punkette on the run from the murderous Russian mobsters who sex-trafficked her into Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city. Arriving at a remote country farmhouse, she seeks shelter from Aliide (Liisi Tandefelt), a paranoid elderly woman with a handy arsenal of firearms. Flashbacks to Aliide’s youth form the bulk of the drama, when she also fought against savage Russian invaders, later paying a terrible price in shame and guilt.

Young Aliide (Laura Birn) is initially hostile to Soviet occupation, sheltering her handsome resistance-fighter brother-in-law Hans (Peter Franzén) for a mix of partisan loyalty and unresolved romantic feelings. But as Russian tactics turn increasingly nasty, Aliide is subjected to a gruelling gang rape, then forced to prove her loyalty by torturing her own young niece. Psychologically broken and coerced into marrying a Communist Party zealot, she struggles to maintain her sanity under a hellish Stalinist regime where betraying and even murdering your loved ones is sometimes the kindest option.

Purge draws some obvious parallels between Zara and Aliide, two Estonian women born generations apart, yet both cruelly abused by bestial Russian thugs. The two heroines are also linked in other ways, as the story only reveals midway through. Their sadism and suffering is laid on a little heavy at times, especially in the bloodbath finale, which shifts gear from historical weepie to roaring rampage of revenge. Graphically violent in places, this is not a film for the squeamish.

But if Purge sounds like a bracingly grim experience, it is not. Firstly, it looks beautiful, with cinematographer Rauno Ronkainen painting rural Estonia as a pastoral paradise of sun-dappled forests and snowy fairy-tale villages, all artfully framed in sumptuous blurred-focus shots. Indeed, the visuals may even be too aestheticized in places – scenes of mass execution, torture and rape should not look this pretty. The gripping double storyline never slackens and the performances are excellent, especially Birn, her anguished frown conveying inner turmoil behind outer conformity.

Some Estonian commentators have criticized Purge as sensational and simplistic, especially in its depiction of Russians. There are certainly no shades of grey among these brutish Slavic villains, reflecting the long history of hostility between tiny Estonia and its bullying eastern neighbor. The convention of most World War II films is to make Nazis the acme of evil, of course, but these cold-blooded Soviet butchers are equally diabolical. However, Jokinen’s historical horror story is ultimately less concerned with conflict between nations than with the unending war waged by cruel men against vulnerable women. It is superior gothic melodrama at heart, but feels true enough to have real emotional bite.

Production companies: Solar Films, Taska Film

Producers: Jukka Helle, Markus Selin

Cast: Laura Birn, Amanda Pilke, Liisi Tandefelt, Peter Franzén, Krista Kosonen, Kristjan Sarv

Director: Antti J. Jokinen

Writers: Marko Leino, Antti J. Jokinen, from the novel by Sofi Oksanen

Cinematographer: Rauno Ronkainen

Editor: Kimmo Taavila     

Music: Tuomas Kantelinen

Production design: Tiina Paavilainen, Katrin Sipelgas

Sales company: Solar Films

Rating TBC, 118 minutes