When it was first announced Child 44 seemed like a good bet – based on a hit book, directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House, Easy Money) and a really good cast. However, when it arrived in cinemas it was met with bad reviews and made hardly any money at the box office.
I’m not entirely sure where all the animosity came from though, as while it has quite a few problems it’s certainly tense, uneasy and very watchable.
Set in post-World War II Soviet Russia, Tom Hardy is Leo Demidov, an investigator for the feared MGB who roots out traitors for Stalin. The organisation is judge, jury and executioner – and it extracts ways to find guilt in everyone they arrest. It’s an era of massive paranoia and one where deviating from the official line on something can be a death sentence.
Leo discovers evidence that someone is killing children, although his superiors tell him this is impossible (officially at least) as Stalin has said that murder is a capitalist disease.
The purges of ‘traitors’ strikes close to home when Leo is asked to denounce his own wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace), and when he refuses they are exiled from Moscow. He then discovers that the murders aren’t just happening in the capital. Leo decides to investigate, even though he is now persona non grata and the authorities have no interest in admitting there’s a problem, let alone finding the killer – as there are no murderers in paradise.
I wonder whether part of the problem with the film in the cinema was understanding the thick Russian accents all the actors use, as it does take a while to get used to even on Blu-ray (to be honest some people may want to put the subtitles on). And it is undoubtedly true that despite a penchant for extended exposition there are quite a few sections where it’s difficult to work out exactly what’s going on and why. Even here though you can always pick up the general gist.
I’ll also be the first to admit that it never quite gets to grips with the motivations for why people act the way they do or how the Soviet Union functions in the way it does, beyond a few easy pointers to the effects of World War II on the Russian psyche, and that it’s a paradise for brutes. This would have been helped if Joel Kinnaman’s Vasili wasn’t such a ridiculous pantomime villain, as it tends to undermine the reality of the situation, as well as that of a character who could have been the most fascinating in the entire movie.
However, beyond this there’s a lot that’s far more successful. The performances are good and Espinosa certainly succeeds in creating a relentlessly dark atmosphere – indeed at times it’s a little too dark, as it gives you little hint as to why anyone would believe Soviet ideals were worth fighting for, despite the fact many people did. There’s a real tension at the film’s heart of people scrabbling about in the mud (literally at the end), desperately trying to do more than merely survive by living an endless series of what they know are lies.
Some have criticised the film for being a thriller without thrills, which is rather unfair. It’s more that where action in other films might be described as exciting, here it is tense and dark. I have to say that despite all the negative things I’d heard I was pulled in by Child 44 and while the 137-minute running time could have done with a little cutting (especially as so many of the things that are difficult to understand could have been removed without seriously affecting the plot), it kept me on the edge of my seat.
Sure, some of the plotting is convenient and a bit over the top, but certainly not more so than most mainstream thrillers. Those who’ve read the novel seem particularly aggrieved by the movie, but as I’ve not read it, I could enjoy the film on its own. Ultimately you can’t watch this as a look at the truth of Soviet Russia, as it’s not accurate (and isn’t really trying all that hard to be realistic on this score), and you shouldn’t be expecting a movie like Taken either. However, if you want something dark and tense – even if it’s rather confused about what the film is for – it certainly works. It also raises interesting ideas about whether a serial killer who murders because he is compelled to is actually better than somebody who chooses to end lives based on something they don’t really believe in.
Overall Verdict: Dark, tense and with some great performances, Child 44 may be a bit confused and rough around the edges, but it’s also intriguing and watchable, with more than a few troubling ideas.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac