2016.9: Child 44 (Blu ray)
Child 44 isn’t as good as it might have been -and indeed likely should have been, considering the talent involved. I suspect the film may have suffered from being too close to the original book. Books can be nuanced and complicated in ways that films find tricky to pull off without bogging the running time down with sub-plots and unnecessary background details diffusing the core narrative thread, and thats largely why Child 44 suffers. At its core, the film has a fascinating premise: in a highly paranoid post-War Russia, Stalin’s decree that there can be ‘no murder in paradise’ is put to the test when bodies of children are found and it becomes evident that a serial-killer is on the loose. Stalin’s decree cannot be argued with, so the authorities fabricate all manner of theories and ‘accidents’ to explain away the bodies, and anyone who argues is considered treasonous and an enemy of the state and suffers death or exile. Meanwhile the serial killer is free to carry on murdering children and the body-count rises to, well, 44.
Ministry of State Security officer Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) is already suffering a crisis of faith maintaining the communist status-quo in this nightmarish society in which people are singled-out and sentenced to death without hardly any evidence of actually being subversive. Its soon clear that an easy way to rise through the ranks of society is simply to denounce those above you without need to prove anything. He suffers just such an attack himself when his own wife is denounced as a traitor of the state and he faces the choice of either denouncing her himself or joining her in exile. While all this is going on a colleagues child is found dead near train tracks, evidently murdered and the murder covered up to maintain Stalin’s decree. Demidov has to deal with being exiled with his wife whilst trying to solve murders that no-one can publicly recognise.
So the film is complicated enough- part serial killer/murder mystery, part study of the horrors of the 1950s USSR. But the film adds a prologue showing that Demidov himself was an orphan before becoming a hero during the war, and that his relationship with his wife may not be as perfect as he himself thinks. The film struggles not to collapse under the weight of all the plot threads. Does Demidovs wife really love him? Is she indeed guilty of being a subversive? Demidov’s nemesis Vasili (Joel Kinsman), the fellow security officer who denounced Demidov’s wife in order to progress through the ranks at Demidov’s expense, is clearly psychopathic but the film never really explains why he does what he does or indeed why their commanding officer seems content to see Demidov gone. Then again, maybe they are just examples of the corrupt system at work. But why is the climactic showdown a fight between Demidov and Vasili and not Demiodov and the serial killer, if the film is ostensibly a murder mystery/crime thriller?
It isn’t a bad film- just that one that seems to suffer from lack of focus, of trying to be too faithful to what was likely an already over-complicated book. I think that prior to production someone should have just tried to establish more clearly what story the film is telling.
It certainly looks impressive; the production design is excellent. The cast is A-list: maybe too good, clearly wasting many here in minor roles, notably Gary Oldman, and Noomi Rapace as Demidov’s wife Raisa has a thankless task making something of a fairly underwritten part. I think Tom Hardy is becoming one of the finest British actors of his generation. Earlier this week I was amazed by him in The Revenant and here his Russian security officer -physically menacing, with Russian accent that sounds as authentic as his American one in the The Revenant– has a subtle warmth and decency that enables audience empathy in what is otherwise a very cold dispassionate film. He’s certainly a great character actor and I wonder when he will get genuine ‘star’ status (if that was the likely intention of him starring in Mad Max: Fury Road that didn’t exactly go to plan).
So not a bad film at all, its just struggling under the weight of being too important, telling too much of a story. Sometimes less is more. But certainly it’s well worth watching just to see Tom Hardy in such fine form. I’m sure that if he can pick better films then greatness awaits.