Cigar chain-smoker and all-around war hero Winston Churchill once mused, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” While Child 44 isn’t quite that indecipherable, Churchill’s sentiments perfectly summarise the disjointed and fragmented adaptation of Tom Rob Smith’s U.S.S.R.-based novel. Director Daniel Espinosa fails to utilise the superb cinematic tools at hand—including a stellar cast and intriguing story—and ends up with a drab affair. It’s a bit like being blessed with the whole of Home Depot to build your house and coming out with a shed.
Child 44 takes its cues from Russia’s most famous authors and their bleak, harrowing and oppressive portrayals of the Motherland. Calling on the scale of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the paranoia of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and the sheer desolation Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Child 44 is, simply put, very Russian. The film aptly combines the aforementioned elements through backdrop of Stalin’s totalitarian regime.
In an era typified by secret police and defenestration, the irony is that Stalin decreed there be no murder in the paradise that is Communism. However, when a series of ghastly child deaths pop up all over Russia, there’s trouble in his supposed utopia. Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), a loyal agent of the Ministry of State Security (MGB), suddenly finds himself questioning his moral beliefs and devotion to the State when asked to cover up these heinous crimes. Rather than subvert justice in line with his duties, Demidov attempts to unravel the murderous conspiracy at the risk of seeing himself carted off to a Siberian Gulag.
You can break Child 44 into two different central narrative strands: Demidov’s personal battle with his oppressive government and his attempt to unravel the murder mystery. Both threads could easily take up the entire runtime, and this is the film’s biggest issue. Screenwriter Richard Price fails to blend the two major plots into one fluid, succinct drama. As such, neither of them are sufficiently developed.
Demidov’s motivations for hunting the child killer are confusing and fail to hold up against thorough interrogation. Catching this murderer may be the proper thing to do, but Demidov himself doesn’t seem sure why he’s risking his life for it. In fact, one of the major plot holes revolves around why the MGB and KGB are desperate to stop Demidov from unearthing the truth. Of course the State doesn’t want to claim that murder is just a Capitalist disease, but why don’t they just whisk the killer off to a Gulag themselves? If they secretly caught him, surely they wouldn’t need to cover up any crimes.
Another symptom of the overbearing parallel plots is that it dilutes the film into a disjointed mishmash of undercooked scenes. The pace is so unrelenting it fails to allow any deeper analysis; instead, we’re left with a largely superficial tale. Within the dour tones of grey and black that exemplify the Soviet Blockade there are hardly any memorable moments or exchanges, largely due to the fact that no scene rests long enough to leave a mark.
Child 44’s biggest asset on paper is its star-studded cast. Unfortunately, Tom Hardy, Vincent Cassel, Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace and Charles Dance all inhabit disappointingly underdeveloped characters. Hardy and Rapace dominate the film as the central couple, but there’s an icy wedge drilled between them that freezes any chance of a steamy chemistry bubbling through. The likes of Oldman and Cassel are used for little more than glorified cameos once their screen time is totalled up.
Child 44’s biggest dilemma is that it can’t quite work out what it wants to be. Is it a stark, intense drama about treachery, loyalty and suppression in a dictatorship, or a universally appealing blockbuster built on big names? In the end, it fails to be either. Espinosa doesn’t give Child 44 an identity—a death knell for any film that has noteworthy aspirations.
Beyond riddles about Russia, Churchill also once stated, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” Espinosa might have done well to heed this advice, Child 44 doesn’t attempt to change anything from the norm. Great cinema is built on innovation, novel ideas and distinct auteurship. Child 44 is the absolute antithesis: safe, generic and forgettable.
Movie Verdict: Meh