Already the highest-grossing Danish film ever — with each of its predecessors following closely behind — “The Purity of Vengeance” is the fourth adaptation of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s hugely popular “Department Q” novels about a Copenhagen cold-case police unit. It will also be the last in this particular series, as the screen rights have now transferred from Zentropa to Nordisk, with any future “Q” movies unlikely to retain the same cast or behind-scenes staples.
However lamented that baton-passing may be, there’s not much room for sentimental reflection in this high-gloss thriller, which is undeniably entertaining yet whose pleasures have the guilty edge of a particularly lurid airport read. The modern Scandinavian mysteries that have swept the globe (led by Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” books) often have a heart-of-darkness willingness to address social and historical wrongs. But here, hot-button issues of anti-immigrant prejudice, forced sterilization, sexual abuse and more feel reduced to sensational fodder for a hectic potboiler. Director Christoffer Boe’s deluxe packaging makes it all go down smoothly, but it’s best not to dwell overlong on plausibility or anything else once the final credits have rolled.
Though sold to numerous territories (albeit not yet in North America), it’s anyone’s guess whether “Vengeance” will make stronger box office inroads outside Europe than preceding entries. Certainly the whole series appears a natural for foreign remakes. Alas, if the royal botch Hollywood made of cashing in on the “Millennium” bonanza was any indicator, no one should hold their breath for a stateside franchise.
Misanthropic homicide detective Carl Morck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), long since posted to the cold-case division as punishment for reckless conduct, is in an even fouler mood than usual. The cause of that is the imminent departure of his right-hand man, Syrian émigré Assad (Fares Fares), who’s been promoted to a different department. Of course Carl can only express this separation anxiety in surly rather than fond terms.
Yet Assad, with just one week left before transfer, can’t help plunging in when a grotesque new-old case lands on their desks: Construction workers demolishing a false wall in a seemingly abandoned apartment discover behind it three mummified corpses. Though politely seated around a tea service, they’re bound to their chairs and contorted in agony, toxicology reports soon determining that they were poisoned to death more than 30 years ago.
The flat’s owner has dutifully paid her rent from Spain for years, and proves elusive when authorities try to apprehend her there. What she and the victims all have in common are pasts linked to Sprogo, an island that once housed an institution for “troubled girls,” ranging from the mentally unstable to those whose families simply wanted them shut away. It was eventually shuttered amid abuse scandals that were nonetheless effectively hushed up by the government. In flashbacks interwoven throughout, we witness the facility at its worst via the experiences of one Nete (Fanny Bornedal), a young woman shunted here in 1961 to sever her love affair with a cousin. Creepy presiding Dr. Wad (Elliott Crosset Hove), sadistic nurse Gitte (Luise Skov) and nymphomaniacal fellow patient Rita (Clara Rosager) are chief among Nete’s tormenters in this less-than-therapeutic environ.
Meanwhile in the present, Carl & co. discover that Wad (now played by Anders Hove) is not just alive and well but the respected chief of a renowned fertility clinic, and hence protected by our protagonist’s bosses from aggressive investigation. But evidence increasingly points in his direction and suggests he may well still be violating his Hippocratic Oath. Assad discovers to his horror that a young Muslim woman of his acquaintance (Amanda Radeljak) might have been subjected to a medical procedure without her consent. His and Carl’s assistant Rose (Johanne Louise Schmidt) finds the shuttered Sprogo facility’s current caretaker (Nicolas Bro) is a wellspring of conspiracy-theory paranoia — but he might also be on to something. It all leads to a borderline preposterous but well-staged climax at Dr. Wad’s shiny new institute, with practically everybody and their mother in mortal peril.
From rape to the specter of Nazi-esque modern “genetic cleansing” and master-race rhetoric, “The Purity of Vengeance” is certainly willing to throw unpleasant subjects into the mix. The trouble is, that mix is a high-cal, low-nutrient milk shake of melodramatic contrivances too hastily jammed together to lend such disturbing themes any real weight. There’s nary a dull moment here, but the line between pulp excitement and exploitation proves thin. It may be that in getting compressed to two-hour feature length, Adler-Olsen’s dense plotting becomes a bit vulgar, exposed in a way that the 500-page book has breathing space to avoid.
That necessary condensing also leaves the performers needing to fill out broadly written characters in a few strokes, though the returning leads have the benefit of viewer familiarity. Fares and Schmidt provide the required warmth to contrast with Kaas’ somewhat caricatured curmudgeon. Hove makes an arrestingly sinister impression as the elder Mengele-like figure, while Berthe Neumann turns up late as someone with the key to the whole flat-full-o’-mummies mystery.
“Vengeance” is fast-paced and highly polished, with solid contributions from debuting feature DP Jacob Moller and all other tech/design personnel. If its slick mix of cop heroics and eugenics diabolism is a bit over-the-top, well, so was “The Boys From Brazil.”