Being based on a bestselling novel and boasting a stellar cast should make Child 44 a sure-fire success. We sent Lucy Reynolds to see if it has.
This is the line that appears on-screen at the beginning of Daniel Espinosa’s Soviet Union thriller, adapted from the bestselling novel by Tom Rob Smith, and is echoed throughout the film by characters who are too afraid to deviate from this Stalinist doctrine. Josef Stalin believed murder was a disease caused by capitalism, therefore being unable to exist in his ‘Communist’ idyll – this, coming from the man who also was quoted as stating that “One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic.”
This sets the rather grim tone for the film, which takes place during the 1950s in the midst of the paranoia and brutality of the Stalinist regime. Child 44 has a sense of doom and suspicion that forebodes throughout the film, intertwining the Soviet history of the Ukrainian Holodomor (famine – genocide) of the 1930s, fear and intimidation from the secret police in the 50s and the scourge of the 80s serial child-killer Andrei Chikatilo.
As well as such a darkly fascinating context, this is a film that has a stellar cast, boasting Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace, Vincent Cassel, Paddy Considine and the always spectacular Tom Hardy as leading man. Such a shame, then, that it seems to lack the ability to use these elements to their full potential, leaving the audience with a feeling that, while it is an intriguing and entertaining film in so many ways, it could have been so much better.
The story focuses on the life of Leo Demidov (Hardy), from his tragic beginnings as an orphan of the Holodomor, and his adoption and rise through the ranks of the military, turning into a World War II hero and achieving a position of seniority within the MGB (secret police).
His relationship with his wife Raisa quickly becomes troubled, with rumours of her treachery against the state, forcing Demidov to follow her. Running alongside this plot is the growing threat of a child-killer who, after slaughtering one of the sons of a member of the MGB, is now moving further afield and increasing his kills by the day. As well as this, Leo has a crumbling marriage to contend with and the constant intimidation and undermining from Vasili (Joel Kinnaman), his sadistic rival from the secret police.
My main gripe with Child 44 is that it almost has too much of a good thing going with the brilliant cast, the involved plotlines and the Hollywood production values. The expression ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ comes to mind, leaving actors like Gary Oldman and Paddy Considine meagre amounts of screen time to work with. The child-killer plot feels woefully underdeveloped, especially when, at the end, the killer apparently knows the name of Demidov and his motives are hurriedly explained.
We only get a few scenes with Considine, whose mild-mannered character never manages to show signs of underlying malicious intent, other than a baffling scene involving a rag and a bucket of water which clumsily tries to work as exposition. Even the fractured relationship between Leo and Raisa, which is impressively acted by Rapace and Hardy, becomes confusing when the plotline shifts focus and they are suddenly working together to find the killer, despite the tumultuous scenes witnessed minutes before.
There are also questions about how Raisa learns such deadly fight skills, as shown in a scene on a train, and how Oldman’s character, Timur Nesterov, learns to trust Leo in such a short amount of time.
At a running time of two hours and 17 minutes, the film felt overly long yet strangely rushed. Hardy and Rapace do a sterling job of keeping us engaged while they are on screen, but the competing plots never feel fully developed or resolved. Espinosa’s direction at times is thrilling and nerve-wracking, but the whole film lacks solidity and suffers from dilution of storylines and detail.
Child 44 was enjoyable but left me with a feeling that the Hollywood budget took precedent over the quality of the screenplay. It wants to be a serial killer film, but also tries to be a political thriller as well as a study of the relationship between man and wife, without fully satisfying any of these aims. If you want to see a political thriller at its best, watch Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, and to see just how sinister Paddy Considine can get, watch Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes instead.916 Views
Lucy is a teacher whose dream as a child was to be WWE Wrestling Champion. That dream is still alive.