A film review by Craig J. Koban August 15, 2015

CHILD 44 jj

2015, R, 137 mins.


Tom Hardy as Leo Demidov  /  Noomi Rapace as Raisa Demidov  /  Gary Oldman as General Mikhail Nesterov  /  Joel Kinnaman as Vasili  /  Paddy Considine as Vladimir Malevich  /  Jason Clarke as Anatoly Brodsky  /  Vincent Cassel as Major Kuzmin  /  Fares Fares as Alexei Andreyev

Directed by Daniel Espinosa  /  Written by Richard Price  /  Based on the novel by Tom Rob Smith

CHILD 44 is a mystery-thriller set in 1950’s Cold War-era Russia that contains an endlessly intriguing premise that’s amplified by rock solid period production design and another bravura, scene stealing lead performance by Tom Hardy.  It does a captivating job of fully immersing viewers in the dreary paranoia-fuelled minutia of a mid-20th Century Soviet Union, which gives a unique sense of immediacy and ambience to the proceedings.  Yet, CHILD 44's narrative somehow never seems to gel cohesively together as a whole, with a smattering of impeccably orchestrated moments that are ultimately undone by sluggish, elephantine pacing and a genuine lack of storytelling focus.  The film has an important story to tell, but it’s never quite sure how precisely to tell it.   

The film is based on the critically lauded 2008 novel of the same name by Tom Rob Smith, adapted here to the screen by Richard Price, a celebrated author and screenwriter in his own right.  The story is set during the latter years of totalitarian Stalin-led Russia, a period of heated USA/USSR relations when Stalin contended that deviant and immoral behavior was largely the cause of a Capitalist upbringing.  In the Russian state’s mind, “There can be no murder in paradise.”  Since heinous acts like killing were then considered an American disease and crime, Russia systematically ignored such occurrences and, more or less, swept them under the legal rug.  When it appears that a serial killer of children is on the loose it leads to some questioning Stalin’s position on such matters.  If there is no murder in a Russian paradise, then how could so many be occurring on their home soil?  The central who-dunnit mystery at the core of CHILD 44 gets too bogged down, though, with far too many subplots (some compelling, many others distracting) that inevitably hold the film back from achieving greatness.



Tasked to investigate the aforementioned murders is former MGB agent (Stalin’s secret police force) Leo Demidov (a reliably stalwart and authoritative Hardy), but Leo has ample emotional baggage that impedes his progress.  A Ukrainian orphan with a damaged and troubled childhood, Leo went onto to become a young war hero at the end of WWII, but those early personal triumphs gave way to a mighty career collapse when he refuses to denounce his wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace, re-teaming with Hardy after last year’s underrated THE DROP) is accused by the state of “unpatriotic activities.”  This makes Leo’s life extremely complicated, especially considering that his boss (Vincent Cassel) forces him to investigate suspicious activity of Russian citizens.  Alas, Leo refuses to give Raisa up, which eventually leads to his punishment: exile. 

Leo and Raisa are forced well outside of Moscow for their mutual indiscretions against the state, during which time Leo begins working under new commanding officer General Timur Nestero (Gary Oldman) and discovers the details of a series of chilling and grisly child murders, with multiple bodies appearing at random.  Of course, the state steadfastly refuses to acknowledge these heinous acts are that of a mass murderer, but Leo thinks otherwise and begins to see patterns and put pieces of the crime together that points towards a culprit and motive, all while dealing with ignorant bureaucratic powers that refuse to accept that such deplorable activities exist within their anti-Capitalist society.  Leo takes the large burden of solving this case on his already heavily burdened shoulders, all while dealing with a series of outside obstacles that are not only conspiring against his investigation, but also his marriage to Raisa.   

Is Tom Hardy the greatest living actor?  Performances that the 37-year-old Brit has given in films as far ranging as THE DROP, LOCKE, WARRIOR, LAWLESS, and BRONSON are certainly making a case in point, as he’s one of the few actors that can thanklessly and easily submerge himself into any role and any ethnicity with a searing authenticity.  Like his past work, Hardy brings his brawny and hypnotic intensity to the role of Leo, a deeply flawed and tortured hero that’s desperate to do the right thing in a society that may or may not allow him to do so.  Now there is an argument to be made that the sheer number of non-Russian actors playing Russians here is sort of stupefying (I counted actors of British, Australian, Swedish, and Polish decent among the cast members), but Hardy is so crazily focused and nuanced in the role that you hardly think of such trivialities.  A consistently superlative supporting cast in Oldman and Rapace, both of whom give CHILD 44 some stellar performance and dramatic heft, surrounds Hardy, but it's ostensibly his raw and unpredictable charisma, though, that is the film’s key focal point of interest.   

The overall atmosphere of the film is positively dreary and stifling at times, which I think is a compliment.  Director Daniel Espinosa (SAFE HOUSE) is able to evoke notable tension just from the dark and oppressively tactile nature of the film's Soviet Union ambience.  You can really feel the weight of this nation bearing down on its struggling characters, with all them trying to eek out an existence while dealing with insurmountable external state-imposed pressures.  Espinosa’s aesthetic handling of the material here becomes exhausting and frankly depressing to endure as the film progresses, but there’s no denying his stark power at grounding audience members in its distinctive time and place.  Espinosa also doesn’t shy away from the barbarism of the period either and crafts some individual scenes of astonishingly shocking impact, such as tour de force brawl sequence between Leo, Raisa, and enemies aboard a train; it's positively gut-wrenching.

CHILD 44 really falters in its overstuffed scripting, which tries to cram in so many characters and so many of their dilemmas that you’re never really sure at times what the thematic point really is in the film.  We have the race-against-the-clock murder mystery case that’s vying for attention against the personal story of Leo and Raisa that’s further shoehorned in with Leo’s relationship with General Nestero (an underwritten character in his own right).  Then there’s the nature of Raisa’s supposed treason, an important story thread very early on that’s kind of all but ignored and discarded later on.  The investigation into the murders as well lacks tangible suspense and devolves into tedious forensic details when we really should be more fully invested in the deeper motivations of both Leo and the suspect.  A glaring problem in CHILD 44 is that it reveals the identity of the killer way, way too early and then later does very little in terms of probing into this man’s perverted psychological drives.  The manner that Price puts so many elements on the table here in the script and then never embellishes upon them hurts the film’s overall narrative thrust.  He’s a resoundingly good writing, but the screenplay for CHILD 44 feels like first draft material. 

CHILD 44 emerges as a brilliantly acted and handsomely mounted failure.  There was so much potential here in terms of tapping into an intoxicating period that many modern films never deal with, but Espinosa’s film is one with a disappointing identity crisis that sort of squanders the robustly assured cast that he assembled.  It should be noted that Russia banned CHILD 44 for release within its borders, claiming misrepresentation of its country during the film’s presented era.  Historically accuracy aside, CHILD 44 is a missed opportunity that never holds together with the commanding dramatic weight that it thinks it does.  That, and as a would-be thrilling and nail-biting mystery…it never really had me nervously biting my nails that much. 

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