In 1950’s Stalinist Russia, life is bleak, politics are muddled and what’s promised by the powers that be very rarely match up with grim reality. Unfortunately the same is true of Child 44, director Daniel Espinosa’s (Safe House) take on Tom Rob Smith’s bestseller novel, which on paper and trailer looked to be an astronomically cast pot-boiler thriller, but ends up only being half of those things. To be fair, Child 44 is nowhere remotely close to being a bad film. It’s biggest problem is that it should have been better.

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Tom Hardy leads the film as ex-Ukranian orphan turned Russian WWII hero turned brutally efficient State Security hunter of traitors with an inconvenient conscience Leo Demidov. When Demidov insists on investigating the horrific murder of a colleague’s son, despite his superior’s insistence that it’s not a murder at all (“Murder is a capitalist crime,” Vincent Cassel’s Major Kuzmin informs him) it sees him and his schoolteacher wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) exiled to the sooty countryside with their cushy Moscow life replaced by toilet cleaning duty and a parade of endlessly grimy “neighbours”. Complicating matters even further is Demidov’s growly and scowly colleague Vasily (Joel Kinnaman), an ambitious bootlick who had his eye on both Demidov’s desk and wife, and may have led to her being accused of treason when he could get neither.

But now under the service of Gary Oldman’s terse General Nesterov, Demidov finds that he what he thought was just a single unexplained murder is actually number 44 in a series of swept-under-the-carpet grisly child killings that stretches as far across the forbidding Russian countryside as it does back in years. And thus the stage is set for a cat and mouse game to track down a monstrous serial killer that the government insists doesn’t exist. Also, some other stuff. And here lies the problem.

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Despite it being pitched as the central narrative for Child 44, the serial killer arc is slow to get started, resolved in the most anticlimactic of fashions, and during the film it is more often than not shoved to the side in favour of several bouts of sociopolitical commentary. In Smith’s original text, this flaying of Stalinist Russia, exposing all the horrors, social injustices and the constant atmosphere of paranoia as thick as the borscht that the people lived under, despite the state’s declarations of communist paradise, made for gripping reading. In Richard Price’s (Ransom, The Wire) screenplay it’s admittedly intriguing and occasionally shocking, but far too often it also just feels diversionary and excessive. We already know that Stalin wasn’t big on human rights, so you don’t have to show us every homosexual witch hunt, every farce of a trial before execution. In an admirable but slightly creatively misguided attempt at authenticity and source material fidelity, Espinosa and co are left with several unnecessarily meandering plot lines that on occasion really make you feel the film’s 137 minute running time.

I’m the last person who wants scripts to be stripped of their meta-textual commentary in favour of just straight-up reptilian thrills – and there’s no denying that among the flotsam, there is actually some heavy, thought- and emotion-provoking material to digest in Child 44 – but a tighter script may have been the more engaging option here.

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Not that the actors aren’t doing everything they can to engage you. Thespic powerhouses like Oldman and Jason Clark (as a traitor hunted down early by Demidov) may be almost criminally underutilized, but everybody turns in fantastically strong performances within the screen real estate they’re given. Hardy somehow remains especially electric, despite his disproportionately thick Russian accent occasionally slipping to cartoonish levels, and the always solid Rapace mines a great character arc as her character goes from coldly distant spouse to literally fighting tooth and nail at her husband’s side.

And it’s actually in these visceral, bloody and mucky fights that Espinosa cleverly offers the film’s most effective bit of soapboxing, as these brawls often involve the audience not being able to clearly differentiate between hero and villain, echoing one characters’ early pontificating: “At the end of the day — hero? Monster? We’re both killers.”

 

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Oscar-winning cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot also lenses it all in such a way that even the grungy ugliness of a rundown Russian coal town or muddy and  dingy forests are beautiful to look at, with an understated but haunting score by Espinosa regular collaborator Jon Ekstrand underpinning the haunting imagery.

And that’s sort of a good encapsulation of Child 44 as a whole: It sounds and looks great, but underneath it all there are things that are seriously wrong. Whether Price’s script was too faithful or Espinosa is perhaps not a skilled enough director to tie the various thread into one conclusive, consistently thrilling whole is up for debate. But with attractive premise and the talent amassed here – especially considering how often those elements work well in spite of themselves – Child 44 should have been great. For now we’re going to have to settle for just good-enough.

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Last Updated: May 7, 2015

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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