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the rest of the pic’s starry Euro ensemble, delivers his lines in a thick Russian accent — a distraction that feels as outdated as “Easy Money” director Daniel Espinosa’s choice to shoot on celluloid, plunging the story’s already grim Stalin-era living conditions even deeper into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.