2015, R, 137 min. Directed by Daniel Espinosa. Starring Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Jason Clarke, Paddy Considine, Vincent Cassel.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 24, 2015
Set mostly during the waning years of Stalin’s totalitarian grip on the USSR, Child 44 does a superb job of capturing the grim living conditions and pervasive paranoia that marked the bleak era. Sadly, that’s about all this movie does well. Based on the bestselling novel by Tom Rob Smith, and with an adapted screenplay by Richard Price (Clockers, Sea of Love), Child 44 has a pedigree that’s also enhanced by its top-notch cast of European actors. Yet the film is such a muddle that such distinctions only augment the appearance of the film having missed its mark by a wide margin.
Although the milieu feels spot-on, the narrative is a victim of serpentine storytelling. Indeed, there are several plot strands that circle back and refuel one another, but the film also contains many unnecessary scenes, which only create confusion. Tom Hardy is Leo Demidov, a starving orphan when first we meet him in 1933. Skip ahead to the Fifties, and Leo has become a war hero and respected member of the military police. Leo’s obedience is tested by his superiors when he is first commanded to comply with the cover-up of an obvious child murder and then denounce his wife Raisa (Rapace) as a traitor. Leo has always been a dutiful government servant, and even goes so far as to investigate Raisa, but when he comes up with no evidence against her, he refuses to incriminate her. For this, the couple is sent to the work camps, where Leo encounters more child murders bearing the same m.o., yet only his boss (Oldman, appearing in his fourth film with Hardy) will believe there’s a serial killer on the loose. (“There is no murder in paradise,” aka the Soviet Union, is an oft-repeated phrase in the movie.) Raisa, who for years has hidden her dislike of Leo, becomes a loving partner as the couple tracks the murderer.
Nothing is improved by having the actors speak in Russian-inflected English, though the performances are all reasonably solid. A schmaltzy music score contrasts poorly with the film’s visual grit and somber tone. Mix Doctor Zhivago with The Silence of the Lambs and The Lives of Others, and you’ll wind up with something like Child 44 – but, hopefully, more cohesive.