Directed by Daniel Espinosa. Starring Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace, Jason Clarke, Joel Kinnaman, Fares Fares, Vincent Cassel, Josef Altin, Paddy Considine, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Ned Dennehy, Vlastina Svátková, Zdeněk Bařinka, Jaromír Nosek, Jana Stryková, Petr Vaněk, Mark Lewis Jones, David Bowles, Sonny Ashbourne Serkis, Charles Dance, Petra Navrátilová, Marie Jansová. Written by Richard Price, from the novel by Tom Rob Smith.
Ostensibly about the hunt for a child killer in Stalinist Russia – a fictionalized account of the Andrei Chikatilo ordeal, as portrayed in the excellent HBO movie Citizen X – Daniel Espinosa’s Child 44 devotes only about a quarter of its 137-minute running time to the murder investigation it purports to depict.
Instead, the film is all about how awful things were in Russia under Stalin’s rule. And yeah, things were pretty awful – millions dying of starvation, some forced to resort to cannibalism, and a serial killer roaming the countryside murdering dozens of children.
This is all well documented. But why did Child 44 have to invent more reasons for this to be such a horrible time and place?
There are two central conceits to the film, which has been adapted by Richard Price from Tom Rob Smith’s bestselling novel.
The first: anyone can be accused of being a “traitor”, and they are immediately tortured, killed, or otherwise removed from society. After a lengthy prologue, the meat of the film begins as war hero Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) and his police squad are hunting down so-called traitor Anatoly Brodsky, played by Jason Clarke.
We don’t know what Brodsky did, or is accused of doing – the traitor tag is enough to warrant murdering him and everyone associated with him. He seems completely innocent of everything, but before he’s killed, he supposedly gives names of other traitors to Leo’s second-in-command Vasili (Joel Kinnaman), and one of those names happens be Leo’s wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace).
The commanding officer (Vincent Cassel) assigns Leo the task of “investigating” his wife – which means he must denounce her, or they will both be killed. And if that ain’t enough, Leo adoptive parents will also be killed. “4 versus 1,” as his father tells him.
Now, this is all total nonsense – Vasili has a beef with Leo, and is in love with his wife, and has clearly invented this traitor business – and everyone in the film, and in the audience, knows it. And I’m sitting there thinking: why doesn’t Leo just accuse Vasili of being a traitor? Leo is Vasili’s superior, friend and fellow officer Alexei (Fares Fares) will back him up, and according to the idiotic logic here, that should be enough to solve this issue.
But instead, we’re treated to endless scenes of these characters suffering through aggressively harsh times, nmade even harsher by the invention of the author.
Here’s the film’s second conceit: there’s a serial killer out there murdering children. Leo knows it, Alexei – whose son was murdered – knows it, and the rest of the police know it. But no investigation will take place, and the child murders are all classed as “accidents”.
Why? Because n the paradise of Stalinist Russia, the concept of murder is impossible, and must not even be considered. Instead of addressing the actual case, Child 44 spends most of its running time addressing these dumb politics. Why not just classify the murderer as a traitor, I’m thinking? Or a Western criminal trying to make Russia look bad? (Spoiler alert: that’s exactly what happens at the end).
The actual murder investigation, which takes up less than half an hour of the film’s near-unbearable running time, is laughably wrapped up in illogical, unsatisfying manner involving chance and circumstance.
Child 44 boasts a terrific cast that also includes top-billed Gary Oldman (who has about eight minutes of screen time), Paddy Considine, Charles Dance, Tara Fitzgerald, and others, all of whom struggle through thick Russian accents for the duration. At one point late in the film, an extra throws out two lines with a distracting modern English accent.
In 2015, the phony accent thing is unacceptable – shoot in Russian or let the cast speak in their usual, non-distracting, dialect. Still few Hollywood movies manage to solve the language issue (among them – The 13th Warrior and Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie).
Many will complain about the wildly inconsistent accents used throughout the film; Hardy’s is so thick, compared to his co-stars, it almost seems cartoonish at times. But it’s really the storytelling that lets Child 44 down. The finale has been changed from Smith’s novel – likely due to poor test screening reactions – but elements of it are still there, leading to utter confusion. It’s unlikely, however, that anything could have saved this turgid adaptation.
One plus: the film was shot in Prague and the Czech countryside, and makes excellent use of the city. Few locations are recognizable – though you can spot the castle in a couple shots – as Prague flawlessly fills in for 1940s Moscow and surroundings.