A husband and wife are on the trail of a murderer in Stalinist Russia, where the totalitarian regime decrees that 'there are no murders in paradise'
It's hardly a Soviet Hart to Hart!
In fact this is Child 44, a film based on Tom Rob Smith's soar-away bestseller which in turn was loosely based on the crimes of Andrei Chikatilo, the 'Citizen X' of Russia responsible for the deaths of over 50 women and children from 1978 to 1990. Like the novel, the film places the events much earlier in history to the post-war years of the 1950s when Stalin still ruled the lands behind the Iron Curtain with an equally hard, iron fist.
When I first saw that a film was being made of Child 44, my appetite was immediately whetted. When I heard the cast would feature Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace and Paddy Considine, I expected nothing short of a blockbuster. But it was not to be, and the reviews that came in upon its release suggested a complete and utter flop.
Were they fair?
Well, yes and no. This is a plodding and overlong, unrelentingly grim affair from Swedish director Daniel Espinosa, but it's not atrocious - just average. I think the real problem it has is that it lacks a heart to invest an audience's interest. In the central role of Leo Demidov, Tom Hardy flounders, principally because the only attempt to introduce him to us is two deeply inferior scenes that establish his backstory; we first meet him as an orphan taken under the wing of a kindly soldier (Welsh actor Mark Lewis Jones - a favourite of mine) and then we're immediately transported 10 years to the end of WWII when, following a momentous final push that looks like it is filmed through a thick veneer of brown soup, Leo becomes a national hero when he is picked to wave the Soviet flag for the famous photo atop the Reichstag in 1945. The crux of the rivalry between him and his fellow MGB officer, the cold hearted Nikitin (Joel Kinnaman) is shown here....albeit with just one brief and slightly jealous look. From this, we're meant to appreciate everything that follows between the pair!
It's the simple fact that Richard Price's screenplay hasn't put in the groundwork that leaves Child 44 stumbling into 'so what?' territory. The central theme of the cruelty, both singular and institutionalised, against Russia's children is all too often muffed and little is made of Leo's own experiences beyond some meaningful glances and the soundtrack reminding you that THIS IS IMPORTANT. OK, maybe it is, but how about you actually write something that convinces us of that fact? It's a real shame that some great actors are utterly squandered by the material too; the aforementioned Lewis Jones, Lorraine Ashbourne, Vincent Cassell, Tara Fitzgerald, Charles Dance and Jason Clarke all pop up for something like 5 minutes at the most. But the film doesn't offer all that much for its stars either. Hardy brings his usual robust screen persona to the proceedings but there's an element of auto-pilot accompanying it here, which is a world away from his recent performance in Legend, or even Mad Max: Fury Road. Gary Oldman is effortlessly brilliant with a rather minor role that the film seems to forget about in the final third, whilst Considine seems surprisingly toothless. Noomi Rapace at least delivers some heart, with the ability to convey a range of emotions that are utterly affecting with just the simplest of glances.
I'd probably recommend Citizen X, the HBO movie featuring Stephen Rea and Donald Sutherland over this, but the production and costume design here is very good - if you can see through the murkiness that is.