Film Review: ‘Child 44’

Child 44

Tom Hardy adopts a Russian accent in this dark Soviet thriller, in which a serial killer isn't nearly as scary as the system that refuses to investigate him.

Part serial-killer thriller, part old-school anti-Soviet propaganda, “Child 44” plays like a curious relic of an earlier Cold War mindset, when Western audiences took comfort that they were living on the right side of the Iron Curtain, and relied on movies to remind them as much. Here, the central character is an obedient MGB agent played by Tom Hardy, who, like the rest of the pic’s starry Euro ensemble, delivers his lines in a thick Russian accent — a distraction that feels as outdated as “Easy Money” director Daniel Espinosa’s choice to shoot on celluloid, plunging the story’s already grim Stalin-era living conditions even deeper into shadow. Nostalgia combined with a certain amount of pageantry should be enough to draw those who miss Red-scare spy stories to this expansive Ridley Scott production (which he originally intended to direct), though not enough to encourage either sequels or imitators.

In recent years, audiences have mostly shifted their appetite for such anti-totalitarian fare from historical fiction to dystopian cautionary tales (think “Elysium” and “The Hunger Games”). When proper period thrillers do come along, they typically skimp on context in favor of more exciting genre elements, which makes “Child 44’s” attention to its era all the more anomalous — a tribute to the Tom Rob Smith novel that inspired it.

Set in 1953, but haunted by earlier events, including the notorious hunger campaign (or Holodomor) that Stalin waged against the Ukraine, the film presents an image of the Soviet Union in which ordinary citizens live in fear of peers and secret police alike. The toxic atmosphere permeates every aspect of the production, from the grime-encrusted decor to its heavy industrial sound design. Ironically, though suspicion and paranoia are rampant, the authorities don’t concern themselves with traditional crime fighting, living by the maxim “There is no murder in paradise” and focusing their attention instead on curbing subversive behavior.

How then to explain the body of a young boy found naked and mutilated beside the railroad tracks in Moscow? Anticipating trouble, the senior MGB officer, Maj. Kuzmin (Vincent Cassel), enlists star investigator Leo Demidov (Hardy), who also happens to be the victim’s godfather, to deliver the official report, which lists the cause of death as an accident. “A train doesn’t undress a boy!” his grief-stricken mother wails, demanding that her son’s killer be brought to justice. But such claims are potentially treasonous in a society obliged to accept Stalin’s claim that murder is “strictly a capitalist disease,” and trying to convince the woman otherwise starts to erode Leo’s belief in the system.

A survivor of the Ukraine’s mass starvation, Leo has climbed the party ranks by playing along with such hypocrisies, faithfully carrying out his orders without question. Still, he reserves compassion for children, interceding when a zealous colleague, Vasili (Joel Kinnaman), orphans a pair of peasant farmgirls, whose parents he executes as an “example.” Driven by his own difficult upbringing, Leo finds that his concern for young people makes it difficult to ignore what appears to be an ongoing series of child murders — though that challenge feels minor compared with his next assignment, in which he is asked to investigate and potentially denounce his own wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace, adding yet another accent to her chameleonic repertoire).

When Leo refuses, he’s demoted and shipped off with Raisa to a remote outpost, where the local general (Gary Oldman) suspects that he, too, is under investigation — such is the degree of distrust this system inspires in everyone. With the murders piling up in the background, it might have been amusing to invite audiences to speculate as to who’s responsible, though the killer’s identity has been changed from Smith’s novel to a seriously disturbed side character, at first depicted a la Fritz Lang’s “M,” as the shadowy figure entices unsuspecting children. He’s revealed soon enough and without ceremony to be the gentle-looking Paddy Considine, whose never-fully-explained motives evidently have something to do with torture he experienced as a child.

Considine’s character was originally inspired by real-life Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, whose victims numbered well over 44, and whose crimes took place a good two decades later. By relocating the incidents to 1953, Smith connects them to this fascinating era of political paranoia, demonstrating how careers could be made or destroyed by strategically denouncing one’s adversaries. (The slippery Vasili seems particularly keen at using the system to his advantage, gunning for Kuzmin’s job and Raisa’s affections among his various one-dimensionally dastardly ploys.)

These are hardly new insights, however, and Richard Price’s screenplay makes unnecessarily complicated work of juggling the characters’ ever-changing fates — confusions made no more elegant in director Espinosa’s handling of the action. At one point, Leo and Raisa find themselves rearrested and thrust upon a crowded boxcar, wherein an unintelligible fight breaks out, leaving a number of thugs dead and audiences scratching their heads. Meanwhile, Leo has wholly shifted his attention to solving a mystery that the film itself seems only half-heartedly interested in acknowledging. Normally, he’d be racing against time to prevent the Rostov Ripper from striking again, but here, the suspense springs from an increasingly deranged Vasili, who inexplicably wants to stop Leo from stopping the serial killer.

Through it all, the cast play their parts in earnest, especially Hardy, who may be playing a gorilla in a Three Stooges haircut, but pulls it off with the conviction of a young Marlon Brando. He’s as devoted to the role as Leo is to his wife, and you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy — both actor and character — as noble intentions blind his better judgment. It couldn’t have been easy to nail that angst-gorged Russian purr, even if the prevailing trend is now to let foreign characters speak in their native tongues, rather than like immigrants who can’t seem to shake a heavy accent.

For her part, Rapace unmasks several interesting dimensions of Raisa’s character, whose intentions aren’t entirely clear at first. In a powerful scene late in the film, we learn that she agreed to marry not for love, but out of simple self-preservation, which makes every subsequent decision she makes a potential revelation, even if they’re headed in a more or less predictable direction (right down to the patently false feel-good coda). Considering how critical it has been of the U.S.S.R. until this point, “Child 44” has a curious idea of a happy ending, making way for Smith’s next two installments, while leaving the system nearly as broken as they found it.

Film Review: ‘Child 44’

Reviewed at UGC Cine Cite Les Halles, Paris, April 15, 2015. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 137 MIN.

Production

(U.S.-U.K.-Czech Republic-Romania) A Lionsgate (in U.S.) release of a Summit Entertainment presentation, in assocation with Worldview Entertainment, of a Scott Free production. Produced by Ridley Scott, Michael Schaefer, Greg Shapiro. Executive producers, Adam Merims, Elishia Holmes, Douglas Urbanski, Kevin Plank, Molly Conners, Maria Cestone, Sarah E. Johnson, Hoyt David Morgan. Co-producers, Matthew Stillman, David Minkowski.

Crew

Directed by Daniel Espinosa. Screenplay, Richard Price, based on the novel by Tom Rob Smith. Camera (color, widescreen, 35mm), Oliver Wood; editors, Pietro Scalia, Dylan Tichenor; music, Jon Ekstrand; production designer, Jan Roelfs; supervising art director, Erik Polczwartek; art director, Martin Vackar; set decorator, Sophie Hervieu; costume designer, Jenny Beavan; sound (Dolby Digital), Michal Holubec; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Per Hallberg; re-recording mixers, Gary A. Rizzo, Bob Beemer; special effects supervisor, Pavel Sagner; visual effects supervisor, Chris Harvey; visual effects, Image Engine; stunt coordinator, Olivier Schneider; assistant director, Simon Warnock; second unit director, Olivier Schneider; second unit camera, Florian Emmerich; casting, Nina Gold.

With

Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Paddy Considine, Fares Fares, Jason Clarke, Vincent Cassel, Mark Lewis Jones, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Charles Dance, Tara Fitzgerald, Josef Altin, Sam Spruell, Finbar Lynch, Ned Dennehy, Agnieszka Grochowska, Heather Craney. (English dialogue)

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  1. Mikhail Drabkin says:

    Truth is fact multiplied by beliefs.
    Stalin, his times are mythical. There was evil and there was enthusiasm of building a victorious new society, made of new men.

    You can see only evil, you can see only the workers paradise in the making, an experiment..

    The movie is of course a myth as well, where water and oil, life and death do not mix. It is only the dreariness and grime, grayness without sunshine, dusk and dawn but no daylight…

    To attribute it historical value beyond the emotional staccato of fear, more fear and loyalty, is beyond comment.

    A great movie at that – Child 44!

  2. Derek says:

    I don’t understand… “Cold War propaganda”??? The word propaganda implies that the oppressive nature of 1950s USSR is somehow false. Is Mr. DEBRUGE a film critic or a revisionist historian. Imagine the headlines if someone dismissed Schindler’s List as “old-school WWII propaganda”…….

  3. lara says:

    It is too bad that critics allow their political prejudices to color their views of art or films or books.

    As a Historian I tell you that I was exceptionally impressed with this plot, the film and the story.

    I was in the Soviet Union when the murders of the young boys was occurring. I spoke to a woman in Moscow who had no idea that her children were at risk. She had no idea that these murders were occurring. This was during the late1970’s. I asked her if she was outraged that the government had not told people about the murders so that they could protect their children. She said no. That the government was protecting them by not telling them.

    Tom Hardy’s ignorance is only surpassed by his inability to face the truth. Life in the old Soviet Union was exactly like the movie.

    There is also a film of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” I am sure that Hardy would be shocked to discover that there actually was a gulag, much less that people were sent there.

  4. Amy bakun says:

    I thought this movie was EXCELLENT! Just watched it. Can’t believe some of the bad reviews…

  5. Owen Caterwall says:

    I think it might be a good idea to hire a reviewer who can follow the plot (e.g. the fight in the railroad car is not only not unintelligible, it speaks to Vasili’s murderous intentions).
    I thought the movie not only looked great, it repeated the intelligence of its audience. Unlike the reviewer.

  6. Andrew Polar says:

    It is historically NOT TRUE. Stalin’s time was hard and cruel for people, nobody denies that, but the atmosphere of the movie was in Russia in 1932-1940. After world war II not so many people were wrongfully convicted compared to 1937. The murders were investigated and prosecuted at all time of existence of Soviet Union, even criminal statistics was published. I don’t understand why author and script writer made this fiction. They mixed atmosphere of 1937 with crimes really occurred in 1980-1990 and put all that into 1953. If they chose Stalin’s dictatorship as a topic they could find much more sinister facts proven and historically recorded, there is enough materials, why to make fictions.

    • lara says:

      You believe in the Easter Bunny don’t you?

      I suggest that you read Conquest’s books on the Soviet Union. Life did not “ease up” until Stalin’s death in 1953.

      Read Khrushchev’s memoirs or Stalin’s daughter’s memoirs.

      BTW, the gulag is still active.

  7. Ralph Lelii says:

    I couldn’t agree more. This is the classic academic left-the US trumped up paranoia against the Russians who were just like us, only poorer. Uncle Joe was only doing what he had to do. I doubt whether this critic has ever read a serious book of history, content instead to spout the usual crowd pleasers for the white wine and phallocentric crowds. Stalin’s Russia was almost too horrific to accurately portray; cruelty on a scale beyond imagination.

  8. tlsnyder42 says:

    Don’t love the movie (the plot is too slow and complicated), but this review is silly. The movie isn’t Anti-Soviet “propaganda.” It’s an historical expose evils in a fictional context that only scratches the surface when it come to the evils of Communist Russia, or the crimes of the Radical Left and their communist, socialist, leftist apologists in Big Media and Academia, not to mention the current leaders of the “Democratic” Party and the wimpy leaders in the GOP who “go along to get along,” just like some of the characters in this movie. Some of the socialist, collectivist schemes and behavior of the Obama administration, and Hillary Clinton, and their billionaire flunkies in Big Media and Wall Street, sound like the socialist, collectivist schemes of Stalin, which killed about 14.5 million people in 1929-33. Of course, these same collectivists support the murder of millions of pre born babies through abortion. Meet the New Boss; same as the Old Boss!

  9. Ivan says:

    To the author of the article: yes, we were on the good side (that doesn’t mean in fact to be perfect). Saying otherwise sounds like radical chic melancholy. Sort of “I don’t understand the world I live in, so every enemy of that paradigm, even the worst, shouldn’t be depicted as bad as we thought”.

  10. Bob says:

    It’s such a shame Espinosa’s not able to do justice to the novel. What a waste of talent…Hardy’s too good for this!

  11. Jeff Barge says:

    c’est la vie!

  12. Michael Klossner says:

    Note the very good 1995 HBO film Citizen X, about the real-life Chikatilo murders.

  13. Leo says:

    unfortunately movie was banned in russia for theatrical release today, just day before the release

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