The fourth installment of the popular Department Q series, adapted from the novels by Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen, has all the elements of a great thriller. A gloriously macabre crime scene is discovered, seemingly ripped from the pages of an EC Horror comic, that includes three mummified corpses seated around a set table in a walled-off room. Two hard-bitten detectives take the case, but what begins as a simple murder investigation soon leads to a sinister conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of government. There are explosions, chases, a shootout or two, and the airing out of some very dirty laundry from Denmark’s past. While lacking a degree of cinematic flair, The Purity of Vengeance is a cracker of a movie, with an engaging cast and an unflinching desire to bringing the injustices of the past into the light.
The story begins when the aforementioned murder scene is discovered, and the detectives of Department Q begin their investigation into the decades-old crime. For those new to the franchise, our heroes are detectives Carl Mørck and Assad, assisted along the way by their fearless assistant, Rose. In contrast to the relatively well-adjusted Assad and Rose, Mørck is brusque, mysanthropic, robotic, and more than a little socially inept. Meanwhile, we follow the story of the victims through flashbacks to 70s Denmark, in which a series of social reforms have led to numerous young women, including secondary character Nete, being thrown into a government facility on a lonely island. These women, whose stories mirror those of real women sent to the girls’ home on the island of Sprogø, endured nightmarish treatment for supposed acts of immorality.
The Purity of Vengeance shows little reluctance in dealing with extremely serious subject matter. Much of the action revolves around the forced sterilization of women by the state, many of them minorities. The truth of these events was revealed to the public in the late 90s, and drew numerous (and justified) comparisons to the eugenics programs of the Third Reich. To say that it’s still an open wound in Denmark’s past would be putting it lightly. The Purity of Vengeance pulls very few punches in depicting these crimes, or in conjuring the idea that the horrendous perpetrators of these deeds never left Danish society and politics. The film could perhaps be accused of a bit of sensationalism in the scope and depravity of the conspiracy uncovered by the heroes, but the attention-catching drama does help in spreading awareness of the issue the film is grappling with.
Given that this is the fourth film in the series, it comes as no surprise that stars Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Fares Fares appear quite confident and comfortable in their roles. Their chemistry feels natural and well-developed, and they make for an engaging pair of leads. As for newcomers, there’s very little in The Purity of Vengeance that will prevent them from becoming engaged in the plot. This critic, for one, had no idea of the existence of the series until after watching the film, and was able to follow things just fine. Whether you’re a fan or a newcomer, you should be able to immerse yourself in the characters and action.
While its gusto for tackling a very real issue should be applauded, it should be noted that The Purity of Vengeance falls into a very old trope that should really have been re-examined a while ago. This is a story that deals with the brutal victimization of women, of immeasurable trauma inflicted upon women by the government meant to protect them; as has often been the case with such stories, they are told from a mostly male perspective. True, there are some very strong female supporting cast members, but they’re ultimately just that: supporting cast. Yet again, women feel somewhat sidelined in a story that is fundamentally about women, especially when it comes to the present-day segments. Women are continually denied the ability to be the heroes of their own stories, and this feels like another example of this trend. Not the most egregious one, but an example nonetheless.
Also bringing things down somewhat is the direction and formal elements, which quite often feel flat and uninteresting. Not outright incompetent or incoherent, mind, but simply drab and by-the-numbers. The atmosphere doesn’t feel quite as rich as it could, and that brings the film down from some of its contemporaries.
These nagging issues aside, The Purity of Vengeance has a lot to offer fans and newcomers. A tense and sometimes riveting mystery-thriller, it should satisfy fans of whodunits and political intrigue alike, with a metric ton of damning social commentary on top. And if, like this critic, this is your first foray with the Department Q series, you’re in for a fun ride.
The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.