Child 44 (2015): When the Forced Marriage Trope is Given Depth

Child 44 (2015) is a mystery thriller set in 1950s Russia directed by Daniel Espinosa based on the 2008 novel by Tom Rob Smith. Tom Hardy plays hero of the Soviet Union honestly attempting to catch a serial killer from within a system that runs on untruths. His fraught relationship with his wife, played by Noomi Rapace, is the heart of the film.

This essay contains spoilers.

The forced marriage plot is a venerated tradition in romance. So much so that today’s romance writers are twisting plots around like pretzels to try to make this trope plausible—and palatable—for the modern age. Usually, this involves business arrangements and marriages of convenience. The old school romance novels of my adolescence were more about king’s edicts and unbreakable betrothals to the last man on earth the heroine ever wants to marry—but with a sly wink toward lust to undercut her early hate.

The appeal of the forced marriage plot is the belligerent sexual tension for a start. Then it’s the softening. The something there that wasn’t there before. The hero becomes less of an ass. The heroine admits her initial impression was harsh. It’s classic Pride & Prejudice or Beauty & the Beast. Gold standard stuff. From a practical point of the view, the forced marriage plot is a way for historical romance writers to have their Pride & Prejudice or Beauty & the Beast plot, give a nod toward social norms, and still include sex scenes.

But the forced marriage trope has a crucial difference—in both Pride & Prejudice and Beauty & the Beast examples, the narrative question is, “Will the heroine consent to marry the hero?” Her choice is centered. Elizabeth throwing Darcy’s proposal back in his face is one of the best examples of agency in all of romance (my personal favorite comes from North & South). We want to see the heroine stand up for herself because then it’s crystal clear that, by the end, she’s marrying for love. In the case of the forced marriage trope, the choice has been made for her, so her agency is compromised.

What does that do to the appeal of the trope? It messes it right up, that’s what it does.

For fans of messy romance—romance with stakes and grit and depth—this is can be a very interesting thing. If the author treads carefully. Treading carefully means hitting a few major beats:

1. Acknowledging the messed up nature of the situation.

The hero especially needs to understand how getting a wife against her will is, you know, bad. Even if he starts out conceited or oblivious, it’s crucial that he learns to value consent above all else.

2. Giving the heroine a free and clear means of escape.

Readers seem to swoon over the whole, ‘You’re too good for me! But I’m a selfish bastard so I’ll never let you go’ angle. In this trope, the alpha possessiveness vibe is more uncomfortable than usual. Tone it way down. Even Disney gets it right: When the Beast asks Belle if she can be happy with him in the 2017 version, she responds, “Can anyone be happy if they aren’t free?” The only answer is no and the Beast promptly lets her go.

3. Making the character change crystal clear.

The reason the heroine decides to stay with the hero is make-or-break for this trope. Quivering thighs aren’t enough. Genuine, authentic change in the hero’s actions and the heroine’s understanding is a must. This cannot be lip service. It has to feel authentic and earned.

Why are these three beats so crucial? Because the very last thing we need is forced marriage itself romanticized as an institution. Forced marriage is and has been a source of pervasive evil in the lives of women. Google ‘forced marriage’ without the ‘romance’ at the end and you get a lifeline number to stop human trafficking. This trope emerged from a dark and dangerous place, as a lot of storytelling tropes do. No number of happy fictional endings will change that.

Most premises for this trope I’ve seen skirt the trope’s heart of darkness, ignoring the uncomfortable implications in favor of a few thrills. Which begs the question—does the popularity of the trope mean its readers are regressing or resisting progress? Are readers thinking that choice is too hard and wouldn’t it be nicer if someone chose a husband for them and it all worked out in the happily-ever-after? Maybe. Romance is escapism, after all. This trope and the soulmates trope are like the benevolent dictator theories of romance novels. Easy and unrealistic are what some readers are looking for when they pick up a romance novel.

As a champion for romance with stakes and grit and depth, that’s so not me. I want a happy ending, I do. But I also what to use the forced marriage trope to, like, explore my anxieties about the long line of forced marriages from which I’m likely descended. That’s why I need the heroine to continuously stand up for herself and the hero to completely understand her situation by the end. Those three beats I laid out above allow that arc to happen. They’re a formula for catharsis and that’s damn good drama. But the right to choose one’s life partner is a cornerstone of feminism for a damn good reason. For me, the story isn’t satisfying unless it actively tackles that issue.

One of the best examples of the forced marriage trope given depth comes from a movie almost no one saw called Child 44. Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace star as Leo and Raisa Demidov a married couple in 1950s Russia. Leo is a WWII hero turned Captain in the Ministry of State Security. The plot focuses on Leo searching for a serial killer who targets young boys. His investigation is complicated because he’s going against the will of the government. Leo’s colleagues actively want to silence any evidence that their society—a paradise—could produce a murderer. But, as the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes will tell you, the thriller aspect is a bit of a letdown. The real meaty storyline is the evolving relationship between Leo and Raisa.

The first scene to introduce Leo and Raisa as a couple is a phenomenal piece of character work. Leo is telling the story of how he fell in love and married Raisa at a dinner party. The story is a common one: love at first sight. Leo saw Raisa, waxed poetic, and asked for her name. When he tracks her down again, she admits that she gave him a false one. The two tell the story in tandem, but the audience is clued into the fact that Raisa is telling her parts dutifully. It’s Leo who finds this story romantic as he confesses his devotion to his wife. The women of the group are touched. Raisa is cool and contained. She remains cool and contained when the couple has sex in their apartment. It’s a classic framing of marital discord. Leo is kissing her neck, clearly overcome by passion. And Raisa is turned away from him, frowning into middle-distance. In a few short scenes, the audience comes to understand that Raisa does not share her husband’s blind obedience to the Soviet Union. We wonder if she might be a spy or a traitor in some way. When Leo comes home after a hard day where a subordinate murdered a mother and father in front of their two young children, he seeks comfort from Raisa. She accepts that she should do this for him, but she does not actively comfort him.

The turn comes when Leo is handed a folder and told to investigate his own wife for treason. He knows that no matter what he finds over the course of his investigation there will be no mercy. The implication alone is damning. Leo follows Raisa, seeing her lose a fellow school teacher to soldiers. She seems too close to her principal, but nothing implicates her except that he loses her in the crowd. Leo talks to his adopted father, who cautions him that it’s better to give up his wife than to go down with her. Raisa shows up for dinner then and announces where she’d gone—to the doctor. She’s pregnant. Leo tears apart their apartment but finds nothing damning. Neither do his colleagues. The scene where Leo confronts Raisa about the investigation is heartbreaking.

You can see on her face that she expects to be given up. You can see on his face how much this is tearing him up inside. In the end, he submits her innocence knowing that he is dooming them both. Sure enough, they are dragged from their beds. The character work here is that Raisa lets her husband hold her, she screams for him in terror. She clings to him when she thinks they will be killed.

But they are spared somewhat. They are able to leave Moscow with their lives and sent to a village in the middle of nowhere. Gone are the luxuries that her husband’s career afforded them. In exchange for her life, he has to give up everything. Raisa is cooler than ever. It’s fascinating. She tells him that it was all a test of loyalty—he should have denounced because “that’s what wives are for.” His show of love hardens rather than softens her toward him. But she does not betray him, even when his most evil coworker offers for her to return to Moscow as his mistress. She tries to leave him, but Leo stops her and brings her back home. He forbids her from leaving again.

It’s then that we learn that Raisa resents him for how much he loves her because, as we find out, she never had a say in it. That charming story he likes to tell? She remembers it very differently. She “cried for one week” when he proposed and then accepted out fear for what would happen to her if she declined a man of his stature. She was forced into this marriage, and now she’s bound to him even tighter because of his sacrifice. Hearing this breaks Leo’s heart into a million pieces. Honestly, the angst of this scene is everything I want in this trope. Her confession rocks Leo’s world. He has tears in his eyes because he’s realizing how much of a monster he has been in the eyes of the woman he loves but has never known. We also find out that Raisa lied about being pregnant to save her own life. She’s a survivor. She’s a complex thinker and feeler. It’s heart-wrenching, deep stuff, people. Sign me up twice.

That’s the first of the major beats. Acknowledging the messed up nature of the situation.

Then the murder investigation starts in earnest. Leo has to go to Moscow and he’s afraid if he leaves Raisa he won’t be able to protect her. She doesn’t want to go anywhere with him. He tells her that if she comes to Moscow with him, she can stay there. He won’t make her return, and she never has to see him again.

There’s beat number two. Giving the heroine a free and clear means of escape.

But in Moscow, things change for Raisa. She is drawn into the investigation and sees how honorable it is. She comes to realize that the man she assumed to be the honest Russian sticking up for his countrywomen against the brutal government was an ideologue all along. The monsters of her world are becoming much less black and white. By the time we get to the moment when Raisa chooses to come back with Leo, we understand why she’s making that choice.

And then boy are we ever rewarded. We get to see Raisa stand up for her husband, soothe and comfort him. We see her protect him from would-be murderers twice and Leo turn around and do the same thing for her. She is an equal partner in his investigation and his life. The events of the movie bring them together in a way that their sham marriage never could—and it’s a messy, complicated, harrowing thing to watch. In the end, this is a true romance because the couple gets a happy ending. So happy. I won’t spoil the last bit, but there is definitely a romance novel-worthy moment when Leo turns those puppy dog eyes on Raisa to ask her if she thinks he is a monster. And of course she no longer thinks that. Her understanding of him has changed. And his actions have changed—no longer does he presume her love and ignore her true feelings. No longer does he go along with the state mindlessly and play up the war hero bit. He’s a better man and she loves him for it. That’s a transformational love story.

Final beat nailed. Making the character change crystal clear.

Again, not going to say Child 44 is a perfect movie. But the love story? Is a perfect example of a thoughtful use of the forced marriage trope. More romances could stand to use it as a template.

The Long Hot Summer (1958): Belligerent Sexual Tension ≠ Predatory Romance

The Long, Hot Summer (1958) is directed by Martin Ritt and stars Paul Newman as a handsome drifter with a mean reputation who shakes up a rich Mississippi family by setting his sights on the skeptical, married daughter, played with gusto by Joanne Woodward. The plot and themes are drawn from short stories by William Faulkner.

This essay contains spoilers.

Pop Culture Detective has a great video up called “Predatory Romance in Harrison Ford Movies” in which he dissects the actor’s most iconic characters and their problem believing no means no. It’s a worthwhile video to watch all the way through, but it boils down to the fact that these hyper-masculine characters persist—going so far as to use their physicality—despite clear rejections from their female love interests. And in films like Indiana Jones and Blade Runner and even Star Wars we the audience are primed to be okay with this. These women must secretly want it because, after all, he’s the hero. Pretty gross.

But that got me thinking. We want to like these scenes because, let’s not lie, belligerent sexual tension is hot. Who doesn’t want to see two characters challenge each other? What packs more oomph than characters battling with themselves over whether or not to give in to love? I eat up that up like dessert. But, yikes, the longer I’m alive the more I cannot stand how easily belligerent sexual tension slides into predatory romance. What’s a trope-lover to do?

Luckily, I rewatched The Long Hot Summer (1958) recently and realized, holy vintage, this movie from almost sixty years ago actually subverted predatory romance! This is despite the fact that this film has the male lead joking to a group of good ol’ boys, “A lot of women say no when they mean yes.” On the surface, this movie is about a cold-hearted woman melting for a hot-blooded man. It should be the definition of predatory romance. But it isn’t. Why?

On the surface, this movie is about a cold-hearted woman melting for a hot-blooded man. It should be the definition of predatory romance. But it isn’t. Why?

Because this film is a character piece. It’s not after cheap thrills. Based on William Faulkner’s works, the purpose of the film is to poke and prod various social conventions. Clara Varner is repressed, sure, but she also talks frankly about her sexual desires with the man she is pursuing (and has been for six years, which is how we the audience know she knows deep down he’s wrong for her). Ben Quick makes no secret of the fact that he’s pursuing Clara because she’s the holdout, but it’s also clear that it’s not just the challenge he’s after—he understands and sees her in a way that others in her life don’t bother to.

At the halfway point, we get a scene that has all the hallmarks of predatory romance. The male lead kisses the female lead right after she slaps him. Classic Harrison Ford, right? Except not! Check out the scene here:

Without sacrificing the delicious belligerent sexual tension, this scene does a number of things to subvert the predatory romance trope:

The space is large and the door is open. Clara is free to leave.

Ben announces his intentions. He tells her he’s going to kiss her, and he does so from a distance.

“You please me and I’ll please you.” This is an arrogant line, but it’s also an effective seduction because it’s what we know Clara wants. Pleasure.

When Clara smacks him, Ben stops in his tracks. He doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t move until it’s clear that Clara isn’t moving, either.

Clara never tells him no. She never tries to get away from him and he never tries to stop her.

Ben continues to seduce her with what he knows is troubling her—everyone around her is able to seek out their pleasure, but society and her own justifiably high standards bar her from it. You can see in the small movements she’s making that Ben’s words are affecting her. She’s turned on and fighting it but not fighting him.

At first, Clara stands completely still when Ben kisses her. Then after a moment, we get that romance lover’s dream—she bursts forth with passion. She leans into him. She holds him around the waist. The camera pans out, revealing that Ben has kept his hands off of her. He hasn’t restrained her in any way. But when she takes hold of him, he takes hold of her right back.

By the same token, when she breaks off the kiss, he breaks off his contact. He steps back. He watches her gain her composure. When it’s clear she’s not up for another kiss, he steps back even further.

“All right,” she says, “you proved it. I’m human.” She’s affected by the kiss, but Clara is nothing if not prideful and we love her for it. After Ben’s, “Yes, ma’am, you’re human all right,” she lashes out to take his supposed victory away from him with the two words she knows will cut him down.

Ben is furious at her name-calling and the fact that his “Sunday manners” will never be enough woman of Clara’s class. He’s burning with righteous energy, but the angrier he gets the further he backs away from her. When Clara runs from him, he lets her go. She’s well away from him before he gives his anger physical force by slamming the door to the shop behind him and breaking glass. He stops at the porch, so we know he wasn’t going to run after her.

I love this scene. I love that I can love this scene without feeling gross! It’s fraught and messy and complicated and belligerent and tense all without falling into the abusive subtext that lurks in predatory romance.

So, all that to say, feminist romance fans, we can have our cake and eat it, too—we just need to demand better from our media.