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It’s difficult to tell what may be the most menacing aspect of the Stalin-era thriller, Child 44: Is it the serial killer preying on young children encountered along the train tracks? The nonstop purges conducted by the Soviet secret police, forcing men to betray their loved ones in order to survive? Or is it the array of thick Russian accents performed by an entirely non-Slavic cast, in what may be the most Westernized version of the USSR since David Lean made the great Doctor Zhivago?
Granted, such a sprawling and gloomy tale of murder, treachery and political misery probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day without a star-studded international roster, including the always watchable Tom Hardy as a disgraced war hero trying to catch the bad guy and Noomi Rapace as the woman who keeps him going. But even their committed turns — plus some impressive set pieces and possibly the most amount of mud ever flung at so many hardworking actors — cannot overcome a sense of dramatic inertia, not to mention a need to suspend our disbelief enough to accept that these are all a bunch of unhappy Ruskies.
Adapted from the best-selling book by Tom Rob Smith, this $50 million Ridley Scott production does benefit from strong performances and a few worthy scenes that director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) pulls off with an effective amount of grit. Yet the movie doesn’t really captivate the way it should. As the manhunt stretches on, it actually diminishes in suspense, ultimately overstaying its two-hour running time. Released in France two days before Summit rolls it out stateside, Child 44 is likely to pull in modest numbers until it finds more victims on the small screen.
The script by veteran crime writer Richard Price attempts to juggle both a murder mystery (based on the case of Andrei Chikatilo, aka the “Butcher of Rostov”) and the story of a loyal man caught in the mire of Joseph Stalin’s crushing dictatorship, where the only way to get ahead is to rat out your colleagues. This is the quandary that state security officer Leo Demidov (Hardy) finds himself facing, despite the fact that he once rose from the lowly status of a Ukrainian orphan to a WWII champion who raised the flag over the Reichstag. (A nice touch has another soldier removing stolen watches from his wrist before a photographer captures the historic moment.)
In an early scene, Leo is shown to have more compassion for purging than his gun-crazy colleague, Vasili (Joel Kinnaman, who starred in Espinosa’s Swedish hit Easy Money). The initial friction between the two soon comes back to bite Leo when his boss (Vincent Cassel) asks him to spy on the love of his life: Raisa (Rapace), a schoolteacher with a heart of gold and perhaps a few shady acquaintances. Meanwhile, the mutilated bodies of little boys have been popping up by the train tracks of Moscow, yet the authorities refuse to recognize them as crime victims, blindly repeating the Communist Party adage that “there is no murder in paradise.”
Between Leo’s professional woes, marital tribulations and growing obsession with the killings, there’s definitely a lot going on at once, and the filmmakers have a hard time making it all flow smoothly. Certain sequences stand out, especially a handful of conjugal clashes that allow Hardy and Rapace to showcase their range — as they did last year playing Brooklynites in Michael Roskam’s The Drop.
But others scenes feel like boilerplate B-movie moments dressed up with epic production design (by Jan Roelfs) and yet more heavily accented dialogue. These moments really pile up when the couple is exiled to the dismal factory town of Volsk, where they cross paths with a local official (Gary Oldman) who is willing to lend a hand in catching their diabolical madman, played by Englishman Paddy Considine. (Was there seriously no native talent available for this movie? The country that gave us Stanislavsky should still have a few men left who know how to act.)
Despite a grueling atmosphere that can border on caricature, and the overall feeling of incongruity between cast and setting, Hardy ultimately manages to convey something real about Leo’s predicament, playing a man truly caught between a rock and a hard place — or rather a hammer and a sickle. He’s trying to do the right thing at a time when that won’t get you anywhere, containing his inner beast in a land where monsters are allowed to roam free, and even encouraged to do so, by the regime.
In that sense, Child 44 is definitely not a nostalgia piece, and there are no feel-good scenes of party members downing vodka shots, then joining hands with their female comrades for a troika. Even the cinematography by Oliver Wood (The Bourne Ultimatum) seems purposely dingy, as if the lens had been dipped in a bucket of soot before each take. The dire atmosphere is further highlighted by the one sequence memorably set in the sunlight, in which a political suspect (Jason Clarke) viciously stabs himself in the stomach to avoid arrest. Mother Russia has never looked so grim — with or without the Russians themselves.
Production companies: Summit Entertainment, Worldview Entertainment, Scott Free Productions
Cast: Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Paddy Considine, Fares Fares, Jason Clarke, Vincent Cassel
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Screenwriter: Richard Price, based on the novel by Tom Rob Smith
Producers: Ridley Scott, Michael Schaefer, Greg Shapiro
Executive producers: Adam Merims, Elishia Holmes, Douglas Urbanski, Kevin Plank, Molly Conners, Maria Cestone, Sarah E. Johnson, Hoyt David Morgan
Director of photography: Oliver Wood
Production designer: Jan Roelfs
Costume designer: Jenny Beavan
Editors: Pietro Scalia, Dylan Tichenor
Composer: Jon Ekstrand
Casting director: Nina Gold
Rated R, 137 minutes
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