Silver Screen: Child Forty-four *1/2
The hunt for a serial killer is set against the backdrop of the Stalin-era Soviet police state in Child Forty-four, a mishmashed historical thriller that’s far too dour to do any actual thrilling.
The film is based— and very closely follows— the bestselling novel by British author Tom Rob Smith, which is hatched from an ingenious premise. During the supposed workers’ utopia of post-World War II Russia, the very existence of crime is a de facto admission of flaws within the system. “There are no murders in paradise,” the film states (and repeatedly restates). But if that maxim turns out to be untrue, then nobody is looking out for a killer.
Protagonist and eventual hero Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) is a good soldier who has risen through the ranks of the Ministry of State Security and spends his time ferreting out alleged traitors and dissenters. He doesn’t question his superiors even when he’s forced to be complicit in injustices, hunting down an innocent veterinarian (Jason Clarke) suspected of spying and recasting the savage murder of a friend’s young son as an accident.
The enmity of cowardly fellow officer Vasili (Joel Kinnaman), a would-be rival for the affections of Leo’s quietly suffering wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace), casts suspicion on the Demidovs. In Stalin’s day, suspicion was the same as guilt. Leo and Raisa are shipped off to a small, industrial outpost where he’s given a token job in the local militia under skeptical Gen. Mikhail Nesterov (Gary Oldman).
During his stay in political purgatory, Leo learns about a slew of children who were murdered in a similar manner to his comrade’s slain son. Each individual case has been solved, according to local officials eager to blame the horrors on scapegoats, which makes Leo reopening the investigations treason. To save his own soul, he’ll hunt for a serial killer responsible for dozens of brutal killings even as his own political enemies close in around him.
Sounds exciting enough, and yet it’s a poorly paced, humorless slog. Infanticide and Communist oppression are both serious topics, and in lieu of having much to say about either topic, Child Forty-four defaults to abject seriousness, as if graveness was itself a virtue. The movie becomes a tour of atrocities too miserable to acknowledge the lurid thrills inherent in the conventional police-procedural plotline that drives it forward.
The cat-and-mouse game between cop and killer doesn’t even begin in earnest until more than an hour into the movie, by which point it’s been subsumed into a dry history lesson that feels like an unsolicited scolding. Superior author and ace screenwriter Richard Price does his best to streamline Smith’s digressive narrative and weed out the most extreme pathos, but he makes the mistake of keeping the novel’s basic structure, which is frontloaded with exposition and morose distractions.
Your opinion of the acting will largely depend on your tolerance for off-kilter accents. Personally, I don’t much care— siblings rarely resemble each other in movies, either, so why not suspend disbelief and lean into the movie? That being the case, the casting is excellent and the performers excel despite the clear dictate that no smiling is allowed. The characters are intriguing, but they’re trapped like nesting dolls in a multilayered cell: stuck in a dreary town in a dreary country in a dreary movie version of a dreary story.
Child Forty-four’s greatest distinction is that it was banned in Russia with no lesser a detractor than real-life Bond villain Vladimir Putin. Fearless Leader claims the film intentionally misrepresents Soviet life for propagandistic purposes. Perhaps it does to some degree; at the very least it’s obsessed with misery above all other conditions.
That said, peasant life under Old Uncle Joe seems pretty dire, and the serial killer storyline is drawn from the slightly more modern atrocities of Andrei Chikatilo, who murdered at least fifty people during the course of two decades thanks in part to the indifference of Soviet officials. Vlad’s looking as sensitive as a North Korean boy-tyrant here. But in trying to spare his government from one insult, he might have inadvertently spared his people another.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.