Child 44: Grim, Diffuse, Underwhelming Crime Thriller in Soviet Cold War Era War

child_44_posterCritics often complain that the narratives of new films are too thin, that their plot is too slender, that there is not enough going on to sustain interest.

As written and directed, Child 44 demonstrates quite the opposite, a cluttered narrative with too many themes, strands, and elements from various genres, thrown into a bloated mix that’s overly long (137 minutes) and lacks dramatic focus.

The production is handsomely mounted, flaunting an impressive international cast, headed by Tom Hardy, soon to be seen in the eagerly awaited Mad Max, but to no avail and little effect.

Part serial killer crime thriller, part Cold War melodrama, part action WWII saga, part dissection of how the political arena influences the personal lives of good (and bad) citizens, but not satisfying on any of these levels, Child 44 represents a severe case of a movie in search of identity.

In his adaptation of Tom Rob Smith’s thick and well-respected novel, which is produced by Ridley Scott (who at one point was going to direct), director Daniel Espinosa has made a slow-moving narrative, which veers from one subplot to another, recalling the structure of a pilot for a TV series.

This is too bad as the setting, the final years of the oppressive Stalinist regime circa 1953, is fascinating, and one that has not been recently seen or explored in major American films.

child_44_2_hardy_oldmanSoviet politics crash up against the hunt for a depraved and vicious serial killer who has taken the lives of children in 1950s Soviet Russia. The authorities will not help track him down, because as ironically as it may sound murder isn’t considered an “official” crime.

At the center of the tale is quite an intriguing (and the only fully developed) character, Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), a top-level Stalinist secret police agent who experiences what could be described as  major crisis of conscience and identity.

When first met, Leo is as an orphaned Ukrainian boy, who goes on to become a WWII hero and then a highly placed Soviet operative,  In a crucial dinner party, he relates how he met his beloved schoolteacher wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace). Surprisingly, Raisa’s emotions are muted, though at first the reason for her reserve are not clear; they are revealed later.

Turning point occurs when Leo’s godson is found brutally killed near the railroad tracks, and the state’s official version describes his death as an unfortunate accident. “There is no murder in paradise,” Leo and other key players in the system say repeatedly, as if to convince themselves, echoing their leader’s belief that murder is “strictly a capitalist disease.”

In one of many implausible scenes, Leo excoriates sadistic police agent Vasili (Joel Kinnaman) for unnecessary brutality toward a peasant family believed to be harboring a traitor (Jason Clarke).

child_44_1_hardy_rapaceLeo is then asked by the senior officer Major Kuzmin (Vincent Cassel) to denounce his wife as a spy. When Leo refuses, the couple is forced out of their luxurious Moscow apartment into exile. But rather than being sent to a gulag, they’re reassigned to a dilapidated outpost run by General Mikhail Nesterov (Gary Oldman)

Suddenly, without any dramatic preparation of even movieish logic, Raisa and Leo are working together, gathering clues in a string of gruesome child murders. In a preposterous scene, they fend off nasty characters on a train with such ease, demonstrating expert skills we didn’t know they possessed

The best element of the film, and the only reason to see it, is Tom Hardy, who, despite heavy (and inconsistent) Russian accent, renders a compellingly dramatic performances as a man subjected to conflicting tensions and forced to navigate political, marital, and personal pressures.

It doesn’t help that Child 44 makes a nearly fatal error by disclosing the identity of the murderer too soon, and worse, that the villain is a stereotypical character so narrowly conceived that even a decent actor like Kinnaman cannot rescue.

The filmmakers have missed an opportunity to revisit a crucial era in Soviet politics and global diplomatic relations by gradually relegating the politics of fear and paranoia into the background and pushing front and center the grim tale of a vicious serial killer on the loose.