Movie review: ‘Child 44’
Directed By Daniel Espinosa
Starring Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Joel Kinnaman, Noomi Rapace, Paddy Considine, Fares Fares, Jason Clarke, Vincent Cassel, Xavier Atkins, Mark Lewis Jones
Rated R, 136 minutes
Tom Rob Smith’s novel “Child 44” is interesting mainly for its time and place. Set in 1952-1953, the story examines the ideology of Joseph Stalin’s Russia. As the film adaptation of the book opens, Stalin’s days are numbered, but his dogmatic proclamations live on.
For the purposes of this story, the pronouncements include Stalin’s decree that murder is a disease of capitalism, so it is not possible in communist Soviet society (“There is no murder in paradise”). Stalin’s declaration becomes problematic for MGB (precursor to KGB) officer Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) after he stumbles onto the murders of children — all clearly the work of a single predator.
Working with a group of comrades he fought beside in the war, he’s remained good friends with loyal Alexei (Fares Fares), but Leo does his best to prevent psycho Vasili (Joel Kinnaman) from turning the MGB into a ruthless death squad.
Accusations of treason are an everyday occurrence, with the MGB rounding up the accused, then handing them off to be tortured until they list names of others who are also supposedly disloyal. Afterward the namers are executed, while those they have named are rounded up to receive the same treatment.
The system has been good to Leo, and he is a happy man. His beautifully appointed apartment is a haven and he adores his school teacher wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) — unaware or unconcerned that she doesn’t appear to return his affections. The good times end for Leo when another murdered child turns out to be the son of Leo’s fellow officer and friend Alexei. Soon after Raisa is named as a traitor.
Refusing to denounce his wife and determined to look into the death of his friend’s son, Leo is stripped of his cushy job and digs and is sent, along with his wife, to be a simple policeman in a small town of Rostov, hours from Moscow. There Leo’s boss is cynical, but fair-minded, Gen. Mikhail Nesterov (Gary Oldman), who allows, and even helps, Leo to continue his investigation into the child murders.
Billed as a thriller, the film is more of a drama, albeit a frequently grim, heavy-handed one. However, the film is humanized by the poignant and tangible relationship depicted between Leo and Raisa. Hardy and Rapace are expert in projecting their character’s inner voices onto the screen, and Leo credibly agonizes over his awakening to the USSR’s broken system.
Lensed in a variety of red-wine colors and muddy grey browns, the film looks every inch the Russia we might imagine from this period. Likewise, the serial killings; loosely based on real-life predator Andrei Chikatilo, a.k.a. “The Butcher of Rostov;” feel shrouded in a cloak of plausibility. Perhaps the film’s greatest failing is the lack of a palette of neutral characters upon which to paint the many dark colors of the era’s Russian experience.
This first book in Smith’s “Child 44” trilogy sets up Leo to carry on in the post-Stalin USSR as a new breed of officer. The question is whether this adult-oriented film can garner sufficient interest to continue the franchise.
In a strange but not wholly unexpected twist, Moscow has banned the film, declaring it depicts Russians as “physically and morally defective sub-humans.” I guess, even a movie, can’t go home again.
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