Essentially an episode of Law & Order: SVU with a library card
Don’t let the title fool you: Child 44 has very little to do with children. Yes, there is a case of serial child murder somewhere in the mix, but you won’t learn much about it, and by the end, you won’t care. You’ll just be glad this somber, violent, pseudo-history lesson is finished.
Based on a 2008 novel by Tom Rob Smith, Child 44 is ostensibly about a series of gruesome child murders in the Soviet Union in the ’50s and the former MGB agent, Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), who sets out on a rogue investigation to find the killer. He’s aided on his quest by his wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) and the police detective General Timur Nesterov (Gary Oldman). Together they must evade the nefarious Soviet authorities, Vasili (Joel Kinnaman) and Doctor Zurabin (Vincent Cassel), who, respectively, are exacting revenge against Leo and enforcing the official delusion of a crime-free Soviet Union.
Would that it were so simple. There’s much, much more that happens, all of which is intended to heighten the atmosphere of paranoia and secrecy, and which really dilutes the plot into a muddled, indistinct survey of the social and political injustices in the USSR. The problem is that director Daniel Espinosa has committed the cardinal error of films based on books: textual fidelity. He adheres so rigorously to the source material, leaving no theme or subplot behind, that the story feels rushed and incomplete, brushing superficially over every plot point rather than honing in on the ones that are most important. The result is that the titular homicide gets lost in the fray, barely an afterthought amid the exhaustive exposition. Consequently, when a misty-eyed Hardy declares of the case, two-thirds of the way through the film, “I have to prove it,” it’s befuddling as to why he or anyone else gives a damn.
Hardy, though, supplies the one engaging performance in a film bereft of them. He gamely delivers a thick Russian accent throughout (think Bane, but intelligible) and imbues Demidov with enough endearing humanity beneath the tough-guy exterior that you can’t help but root for him. The same cannot be said, however, of the supporting cast. Rapace is frigid, all pursed lips and furrowed brow; Kinnaman and Cassel, as the dastardly duo out to dismantle the investigation, are cartoon stereotypes of Soviet agents, little more than glowering pencil sketches of human beings. I would say something about Oldman, but he’s only on screen for a few minutes before vanishing completely – by the time he returns, briefly, at the end, I had forgotten he was in the film at all. And I wouldn’t be doing my job if I were to overlook the absurd mélange of accents in the movie. This is a diverse group of actors – Swedish, French, English – and the resulting hodgepodge of feigned Russian accents straddles the fine line between funny and pitiful.
Espinosa directs the affair with the gritty, physical style that marked his previous efforts Safe House and Easy Money, though without the latter’s art-school nuance. But the real star behind the camera is cinematographer Oliver Wood, whose exterior work evokes the bleak reality of the Russian freeze, and whose gloomy interiors contrast light and shadow like Rembrandt. Unfortunately, his masterful visuals are offset by Jon Ekstrand’s thunderous and unrelenting score, which treats nearly every minute of screen time as a propulsive climax.
The Soviet Union, as expansive and enigmatic as it was, seems particularly unsuited to filmic portrayal; there’s a reason that successful film adaptations of War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and Anna Karenina are nigh impossible. Not that Child 44 belongs in the same echelon as those works – it’s essentially an episode of SVU with a library card. It was inevitable that a movie with the chassis of a police procedural, attempting to address the whole of the Soviet institution, should come up far short.