May 2024

Child 44 (2015)

889372DIRECTOR: Daniel Espinosa

CAST: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Joel Kinnaman, Paddy Considine, Fares Fares, Jason Clarke, Vincent Cassel, Charles Dance


Adapting a book can be a tricky task; change too much and outrage its adherents, but follow the text too slavishly and risk a sluggish motion picture. Book and film are different mediums and should be treated as such.  With its myriad subplots and in-depth exploration of life in the 1950s Soviet Union, Tom Rob Smith’s best-selling historical crime novel (loosely inspired by the case of 1980s Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo) doesn’t lend itself to being inherently cinematic, and director Daniel Espinosa and screenwriter Richard Price’s attempt to bring it to the screen is sometimes murky, scattershot, and difficult to follow.  However, while a flawed film, Child 44 is not the outright disaster that its status as a dismal box office flop would indicate (the film barely played in only 500 theaters before quickly disappearing from them, delaying this review from its limited and short-lived theatrical release in April until it became available on DVD and online streaming in late July).  There’s still plenty of intrigue here, and for those interested in a murder mystery against the historical backdrop of the Stalin-era Soviet Union, Child 44 is worth giving a chance.

As a boy in the 1930s, Leo Demidov (Xavier Atkins) loses his parents in Stalin’s state-induced mass famine known as the Holodomor, essentially a genocide of the Ukrainian people in which an estimated 25,000 died daily of starvation and millions of children were orphaned.  Young Leo runs away from a dismal orphanage and finds a new life with a Soviet military officer who adopts him as his son.  A decade later, adult Leo (Tom Hardy) becomes a war hero when he helps storm Hitler’s Chancellery at the tail end of WWII in Europe and is made a propaganda darling when he hoists the Soviet flag over a conquered Berlin.  Flash forward again to 1952, and Leo is a high-ranking officer in the state security MGB (later to be better-known as KGB) and enjoys a cushy life with his schoolteacher wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace), whom he dotes over but whose more ambivalent feelings toward him he fails to realize.  One day, the son of Leo’s comrade Alexei (Fares Fares) is found naked and mutilated by a train station, a clear homicide which the state police sweep under the rug as a tragic accident, following Soviet propaganda that “there is no murder in paradise”.  Against his better judgment, Leo parrots the party line.  But his next assignment taxes even Leo’s unquestioning obedience.  When an accused spy (Jason Clarke) gives up the names of fellow traitors under interrogation, Leo is shocked to find his own wife on the list.  Suspecting that the “evidence” against Raisa was manufactured by his vindictively jealous colleague Vassili (Joel Kinnaman), Leo refuses to denounce Raisa, and as punishment, both are ripped from their privileged life in Moscow and shipped to Volsk, a dismal industrial town where Leo is forced to join the militia under General Nesterov (Gary Oldman).  But while toiling away in exile in Volsk, Leo stumbles across evidence of a far-reaching state-orchestrated cover-up of dozens of other murders of young boys stretching back years, and realizes a serial child killer is on the loose.  Galvanized to uncover the truth, Leo turns dogged investigator with only the reluctant Raisa at his side.  And meanwhile, even as Leo pursues the killer, his nemesis Vassili intends to protect the cover-up by making Leo himself disappear.

There’s a lot going on in Child 44, and the narrative is convoluted and at times difficult to follow.  The basic problem is obvious: the filmmakers jam-packed too many plotlines into a 137-minute movie, with even the fairly lengthy runtime too short to give them all equal treatment, meaning most or all of them are underdeveloped.  The trailers and basic promotional synopsis whittles the movie down to being about a cop chasing a serial killer, but that’s actually more of a subplot than the main story.  The script can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s about the murder investigation, Leo vs. Vassili, or Leo and Raisa’s complicated relationship.  Price was clearly overly slavish in his attempts to retain all of Rob Smith’s material, resulting in material which at least onscreen feels superfluous and like pointless detours from the main storyline (like a brief subplot touching on Soviet persecution of homosexuals).  Author Rob Smith himself enthusiastically endorsed the film adaptation, but pleasing an author with slavish fidelity to his written word is not the same as satisfying a larger audience.  Oddly, while Price includes such extraneous material, he excises a key twist from the book, which completely undercuts Leo and the killer’s connection and renders their face-to-face encounter anti-climactic.  But then again, the movie is barely about the killer anyway, who’s a peripheral side character and quickly unceremoniously shoved aside for a mano-a-mano throwdown with the real primary villain, Leo’s conniving secret police nemesis Vassili.  The movie tries to make the evolving dynamic between Leo and Raisa the emotional center, but like everything else, it suffers from competing for focus with so many other plotlines.

On the plus side, Daniel Espinosa does an effective job establishing the bleak, oppressive, claustrophobic, and paranoid atmosphere of the Stalin-era Soviet Union, where there are eyes and ears everywhere, there is no “innocent until proven guilty”, and no one can be trusted, with even spouses encouraged to snitch on each other for “treasonous” activities (which can include anything from spying for the British or Americans to simply reading a banned book or being overheard criticizing the government).  So unflattering is its depiction that the film was banned from being shown in Russia, with the modern-day Russian government disputing its historical accuracy and accusing it of anti-Russian propaganda.  As much as it’s often given short shrift and treated almost as an afterthought until kicking into high gear in the third act, the murder investigation is still intriguing, as Leo convinces the initially hostile General Nesterov to help piece together a killing spree including 44 children and a wide expanse of territory, while trying to narrow down where, if anywhere, the killer calls home.  Despite being filmed on a relatively low budget (reportedly “only” $45 million), production values are strong and period details are convincing, at least to my inexpert eye, with the Czech capital Prague, where many buildings have been unchanged since the 1950s or earlier, effectively filling in for 1952 Moscow.  There are striking moments such as the mother of a slain child criticizing the official report with the bitter comment that “trains don’t undress boys”, and a brutal fight onboard a train where Leo is temporarily incapacitated and the previously outwardly demure schoolteacher Raisa, forced to fend for herself, unlocks a little ferocity and does some of her own rescuing.  Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace also get a couple meaty one-on-one confrontations to chew on, as Leo and Raisa are thrown into exile with only each other to turn to, and in the process, are forced by circumstances to actually come to understand and rely on each other.  In fact, many individual scenes are well-crafted, and aspects of both the murder investigation, the Demidov spousal drama, and the Leo vs. Vassili scheming are intriguing, even if the film overall is less than the sum of its parts.  The climax devolves into an unintentionally slightly silly fight with Tom Hardy and Joel Kinnaman rolling around mud-wrestling in the forest, and the epilogue might end things on an implausibly upbeat note, even if the ray of sunshine is welcome after all the unrelenting bleakness that precedes it.

By and large, the cast makes the most they can out of their material, although the varying levels of Russian accents sported by the predominantly British and Swedish cast occasionally makes the dialogue difficult to understand (Noomi Rapace and Joel Kinnaman are barely making an attempt, while Tom Hardy, not one to shy away from making himself unintelligible, goes thick as Borscht).  Tom Hardy is his usual dour brooding self (but gets to show more emotional range than last year’s The Drop, which relegated him to one mode of glum repression) as the initially less-than-heroic Leo, a stoic dutiful soldier who shows a scrap of decency (his outrage at an unwarranted execution committed by Vassili early on) but has devoted his life to loyally serving the system, including ferreting out “traitors” without question or qualm, only to find his privileged status ripped away from him and learning his marriage is not as happy as he has taken for granted.  Noomi Rapace is also good as his emotionally estranged wife, who puts on a front of a happy housewife while quietly living in fear of her secret police husband (with Leo blithely oblivious to her true feelings).  Her two strongest moments are when she confesses her true motives for marrying him, and the train fight where Raisa turns into a surprisingly fierce heroine.  Apart from Hardy and Rapace, no one else gets much to do.  Gary Oldman is top-billed alongside them, but that has more to do with name recognition than the size of his part.  General Nesterov doesn’t show up until halfway through, and then only has a few scenes.  More time is spent on Joel Kinnaman’s weaselly Vassili, but his character is one-dimensional, and his obsessive hatred of Leo is shallowly-motivated.  Vassili does nasty things just because: we’re presumably meant to hiss as he guns down civilians willy nilly, or puts Leo and Raisa on a train to the gulag, or tries to blackmail Raisa into becoming his mistress.  One could imagine him sniggering and twirling his greasy mustache while tying Raisa to some railroad tracks.  Paddy Considine is relegated to the even more thankless role of the serial killer, a nameless nobody whose total screentime is probably about ten minutes.  Apart from a random, overwrought scene where he waterboards himself, and a climactic little monologue, his character, background, and motivations remain a black hole.  Australian character actor Jason Clarke (who played Tom Hardy’s brother in 2012’s Lawless) has a small but key role, while Vincent Cassel is his usual shady self in a walk-on role as Leo and Vassili’s superior officer, and Game of Thrones‘ Charles Dance has a bit part late in the movie.

 Child 44 was originally set to be directed by Ridley Scott, who instead ended up handing the reins over to Daniel Espinosa and only staying on as producer.  One wonders whether Scott might have handled things differently, although his own scattershot and fragmented narratives in such films as Kingdom of Heaven or Exodus, showing exactly the same flaws as Child 44, leaves no guarantee a Scott-directed version would have been superior.  The film was intended to be part one of a cinematic trilogy adapting Rob Smith’s two follow-up novels continuing the adventures of Leo Demidov, but in the wake of Child 44‘s box office whimper, any hope of that is now virtually nil.  But as flawed as it is, Child 44 is not the utter failure one might expect from its virtual non-performance at the box office and its abysmally low critical rating.  It’s not a bad movie so much as a mediocre one, and thus made more frustrating by the glimpses of a riveting story buried under the myriad underdeveloped subplots that keep the “main” storyline (insofar as there is one) from kicking completely into gear.  Even so, it’s technically well-made, generally well-acted, and often intriguing.  Fans of Rob Smith’s novel, or those with a strong interest in the genre or the historical subject matter may find things to appreciate about Child 44.       

* * 1/2