By Preston Wilder
Anyone who watched the trailer for Child 44 should be told that the trailer lies, or at least is misleading. (Yeah I know, what a surprise.) The trailer made it look like the film was a Criminal Minds-type thriller about the hunt for a child murderer, whereas in fact the serial-killer angle is almost an afterthought. Indeed, the title – which must’ve signified more in the original novel – is all but irrelevant in this overlong adaptation. We learn that the killer murdered 43 kids, and our hero Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) immediately corrects that number to 44 – but then, in the very next line, Nesterov (Gary Oldman) adds that another victim has been found in Rostov, so it’s now 45. The title is only significant for about 10 seconds. Nice adaptation, guys.
That said, I prefer the film (or the film it could’ve been) to the trailer – because serial killers have become a cliché, whereas there’s a lot of dramatic potential to the Soviet Union in the early 1950s (the film is set in 1953), the dying days of Stalin’s regime when courtiers vied to destroy each other and the whole country sank into paranoia. More than once, we get a scene where the secret police come to arrest some harmless citizen who’s been denounced as a spy or a Nazi, or perhaps a homosexual. The terrified victim pleads their innocence, while their friends try to intervene and get bashed by the goons. The most chilling line in the whole film comes when the thugs arrive for Leo and his wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) – and Raisa simply says: “It’s our turn”.
This shouldn’t happen to Leo, because he’s a national hero – having once raised the Soviet flag over Berlin during the war – and a high-ranking member of the MGB, but in fact he’s ordered to ‘investigate’ (i.e. denounce) Raisa and refuses to play along, sealing his fate. It’s not clear why his superior (Vincent Cassel, wasted) turns against him like this; it’s implied that a rival agent has been intriguing against him – but the rival couldn’t have known that Leo would surprise everyone by standing firm (had he denounced his wife, the whole building “would’ve been kissing your ass within a year”), so it’s all a bit muddy. The whole film is muddy, especially the second half which adds the serial-killer stuff and turns into a mess.
There are good moments: late in the game, Leo’s looking out the window and someone seems to be standing behind him – but in fact the spectral figure is the light shining off a portrait of Stalin on the wall. Uncle Joe is repeatedly invoked, often as a father figure – a bad dad, like the twisted child killer; “Our leader loves his children, and wants them to be safe,” lies Raisa to her class of Soviet kiddies. Meanwhile, Leo’s trying to get the murders investigated – but he can’t, because murder is a “capitalist disease” that doesn’t exist in the USSR (“There is no murder in paradise”) so the deaths are officially dismissed as accidents. It’s a heavy irony, but a better film could’ve done something with it.
This one gets bogged down, however, full of promising ideas that are only dimly discerned, like that picture of Stalin on the wall. Raisa reveals that she only married Leo out of fear, because he was MGB (is their marriage a sham? did she grow to love him later?). He becomes obsessed with solving the murders, as a kind of redemption for being a “party dog” all these years. (“Do you know what people get around here when they demand the truth? They get terror!” cautions Raisa.) The killer, once confronted, drops the ultimate cliché: “We are both killers, you and I”. Someone mentions, weirdly, that Hitler used to feed his prisoners special drugs, “to make them addicted to the blood of children”. And meanwhile director Espinosa plods along, filling the gaps with dark shadows, murky Russian light and a constant undertow of mood music.
I stuck with Child 44 for a long time, because the Soviet setting is so strong – but it’s ultimately just a bad movie, pure and simple. It’s the first misjudged performance I’ve seen from Tom Hardy, who seems to be looking for a character that isn’t there (he plays some scenes with a kind of slurred flamboyance, as if playing a drunk, for no good reason), and the rest of the cast are underused. Worst of all, the details of the hunt for the child killer are lame verging on inept – our heroes’ plan, in its entirety, seems to be to travel to Moscow and start bothering people – but maybe that doesn’t matter, since Child 44 isn’t really about a child killer. The trailer is a lie, like Stalin’s paradise.
DIRECTED BY Daniel Espinosa
STARRING Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Vincent Cassel
US/UK 2015 137 mins