Release Date: 17th April 2015
Running Time: 137 minutes
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Producer: Ridley Scott
Genre: Thriller, drama, romance
Starring: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Vincent Cassel, Paddy Considine
“There is no murder in paradise.”
This is a hard film to review without giving spoilers that would really reduce the impact of the film, so I’ll try not to be very specific about the plot. It’s being billed as a serial child killer thriller set in Stalinist Russia (how unpleasant, you may think, but the trailer intrigued me). Sure enough, I found the serial-killer angle wasn’t half so important as the one-line description would imply. Which is probably why it is so good (at least in my opinion – the crime genre leaves me fairly cold, as a rule). This is far more a film about two people trying to survive in Stalinist-era Russia, their journey as people, and as a couple, than it is a serial killer thriller, though that plot strand does provide considerable forward momentum, especially in the second half.
Rather than try to give a spoiler-free summary of the plot, may I suggest you just scroll down and watch the trailer, then carry on reading (if you’re still interested)! (Though the trailer does simplify the plot considerably, focussing primarily on the child killer strand.)
It was only gradually at the beginning of this film that I realised Leo, the main protagonist, was not, as I had vaguely assumed from the trailer, an army officer, he is in fact MGB (Ministry of State Security). Think KGB or secret police. An unlikely hero, then. However, we quickly come to see that he is about as decent as anyone doing that job in Stalinist Russia can hope to remain – he seeks to bring his prisoners in alive and goes ballistic when a fellow officer summarily executes two people (though he, not the other officer, is reprimanded!). Later in the film, other revelations and events also brought home to me that he hadn’t necessarily had much choice when it came to his job – to refuse such a position would probably have led to him being denounced as an enemy of the state. However, we are given no information about how he arrived in the role and he seems content in his comfortable life at the beginning of the film (though like the vast majority of characters, his ‘loyalty’ to the state seems little more than the attitude that has to be presented in order to survive – not too surprisingly in Leo’s case, since his parents died in the state-imposed famine in the Ukraine, although he was then adopted by a Russian army officer.)
Choice is a major theme in this film, and the choices the characters face are wrenchingly hard. Over and over, people must choose between say, a friend, and their own family. Sometimes even between their family and their own life. It is through these choices that we see our unlikely hero, Leo, and our heroine, his wife Raisa, grow, both in themselves, and together. This growth makes it an enjoyable film from a Christian perspective, although the religious and spiritual silence of the era, is, to the believer, deafening. Almost every character is totally absorbed with simple survival – there is no space for ideals. ‘You know what people get around here when they demand the truth?’ Raisa warns Leo. The fact that some characters choose to try to do what is right, regardless, is one of the most satisfying elements of the film.
Despite it becoming clear from very near the beginning of the film that Leo’s and Raisa’s marriage is not the idyllic thing he believes it to be, characters display strong marital fidelity in the film, and as I’ve already mentioned, the way they grow together left this viewer very happy. Certainly one of the most heart-breaking scenes for me was when Raisa finally tells Leo the truth about their marriage. Which may sound odd in a film about child murders, but as I said, that is only one strand of the plot.
The film has quite a long running time (137 mins) but I was gripped throughout. It was one of those films where you genuinely did not know how it would end (happy or sad?). People expecting a straight-up serial killer thriller will probably be disappointed. So, from a few things I’ve read online, will fans of the book, at least with the ending. Having not read the book, the twist that is left out (or at any rate, left non-explicit) sounds bizarre and one I’m perfectly happy to have been spared – but fans will probably disagree.
The UK rating is 15 and the list of warnings is fairly unpleasant (strong violence, strong language, sex, child murder theme), but I was actually pleasantly surprised by how restrained the film was. The one sex scene is largely shielded by a bed’s foot board and certainly the child murders are never shown on screen and details/photos of the bodies are not shown too close up – some things we really do not need to see. See below for a more detailed description.
Christian reviewers will no doubt be indignant at, and moved by, the persecution of a man who was in a homosexual relationship – the hard choice he is offered is 15 years in a gulag (a likely death sentence) or writing a list of every man in the town he knows to have had sex with another man. But they may also roll their eyes slightly when they reflect that out of every far more numerous group persecuted under Stalinist rule (Christians, Jews, Muslims and many ethnic groups, to name a few) it’s the plight of those committing homosexual acts, surprise surprise, that gets the attention. Sigh.
There are a few moments when it’s not entirely clear how something specifically happened, for example when at one point the secret police turn up, but it’s always broadly possible to understand (someone was overheard, recognised, etc.). Although I would normally have preferred more clarity, I could not but appreciate that the not-knowing placed the audience in exactly the same position as the protagonists – who also do not know, which on reflection I think was very effective. The fight scene in a muddy ditch was unequivocally a flaw, though. I mean, seriously? How are you supposed to tell who is doing what to whom?
The film has, surprisingly, or at any rate disturbingly, been banned from theatrical release in Russia, although it will be made available to purchase on DVD or online. Apparently they’re keen to present the Communist era in a favourable light, just at the moment, and this is definitely one of those films where you leave the cinema just thanking God that you weren’t born in that place and at that time.
Overall: An atmospheric and character-driven thriller. I really liked this film, and am sorry to see it getting poor reviews elsewhere. I’ll be looking for an excuse to see it again, and I suspect that it is one for my shelf.
Sex/Violence/Profanity/etc: One sex scene, fairly discreet. An implied scene of off stage rape/sexual assault/torture (what actually happens is never revealed). An attempted assault, possibly would-be sexual. Theme of child murder, images of naked murdered children, not shown that close up. Multiple scenes of adult violence including several executions/shootings, stabbings and violent struggles – however, few graphic wounds are shown, with the exception of a severe head injury. One suicide, one attempted suicide. Shot of a mangled body from a distance. Scene of a mentally disturbed man simulating torture on himself. Two torture scenes, brief and without bloody violence. Considerable and continual atmosphere of threat. I honestly don’t recall much of the language, but according to the British Film Classification Board some of it is strong. Theme about men in homosexual relationships – the activities are condemned, but the men are also cruelly persecuted.
Have you seen this film? What did you think?