“There are no murders in Paradise”. This is a phrase repeated several times in the period thriller “Child 44”. The line is a reference to the former Soviet practice of denying the existence of murders and serial killings within their Communist model. In the film we see the propaganda machine clash with a series of brutal child murders in Moscow and surrounding areas. The film is produced by Ridley Scott who was originally in line to direct. Instead the directing duties were handed to Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa.
“Child 44” is adapted from British writer Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 novel which was based on the serial killings of Andrei Chikatilo. The film begins by establishing the system and bureaucracy of the Stalinist Soviet Union in the early 1950s. Tom Hardy plays Leo Demidov, a decorated agent from the Ministry of State Security. His main job is enforcing the rigid laws and capturing anyone the government deems to be traitors. And we see their methods of law enforcement as manipulative, suppressive, and sometimes violent.
Then there is Leo’s relationship with his disillusioned wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace). When out with friends they look like the perfect couple, but she clearly shows a disconnect at home stirring up a number of suspicions within Leo. But in the background of the political and personal storylines, a growing number of murdered young boys’ bodies are turning up. The government wants to cover it up. Families are suffering. And eventually Leo finds himself caught in the middle.
I went into “Child 44” expected a murder mystery thriller. It is definitely that, but Richard Price’s screenplay ventures off into a number of different directions. The marital tensions between Leo and Raisa evolves into a deeper sidestory. A layered political drama builds throughout the film. Then there is the hunt for the serial killer. These and a few smaller subplots are interwoven within the fabric of the film resulting in the vision sometimes feeling clouded.
But the film leads us through this haze and unfolds each story angle, bringing them together in a deliberate, slow-burning method that clearly didn’t work for many. I love the tense political drama and its ominous, ever-present threat which bleeds into ever other facet of the film. There is a tension boiling behind every conversation large or small. There is a proactive paranoia within the bureaucracy which leads to some of the film’s more disturbing moments. And the oppressive nature of the politics hangs over the people like a shroud. It is very well done.
The same could be said of the strained and uncomfortable marriage between Leo and Raisa. The edge to their story angle gets sharper as the movie progresses and the film does a fine job of giving them moments to flesh out their relationship. A number of outliers and influences play into their angle taking it into some very interesting directions.
That leads to the central storyline – the murder mystery and the hunt for a savage serial killer. At least it appeared to be the central storyline based on the film’s promotion. Actually this story angle gets less screen time than the others which was disappointing. The urgency grows with each grim and unnerving discovery yet it languishes in the shadow of the other stories. It is intensely intriguing yet strangely handled. I mean even with a running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes, it doesn’t feel like the film gives the murder mystery enough time or attention.
Plenty of criticisms were hurled towards some of the performances and particular casting choices. Gripes about the heavy accents and the decision to use predominately non-Russian actors. Honestly I think the film pulls it off nicely. A strong supporting cast features Rapace, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Vincent Cassel, Joel Kinnaman, and a host of others.
But it is Tom Hardy’s fiercely committed performance that carries the picture. His blanched complexion and weary eyes gel well with his consistently serious and solemn demeanor. In fact I think he may smile once in the entire film and even then the sincerity is in question. Hardy harnesses all of his character’s inner conflicts and various states of mind and presents them all with a robust confidence. Its a great performance.
“Child 44” is considered a bomb. It bombed with critics. It bombed at the box office. But I just can’t go along with the majority of criticisms. Yes, the film is a slow-moving experience. Yes, the film often lacks a clear and specific focus. But never once was I bored by the pacing or lost due to its narrative structure. Clearly the screenplay and direction could have tightened things up a bit, but there is still so much the movie does right. It ends up being a unique and compelling procedural that I found satisfying even in its messiness. I’m happy to go against the grain with this one.
VERDICT – 4 STARS