(SPOILERS) I’m unable to attest to the quality of Tom Rob Smith’s best-selling airport novel of the same name, but Child 44 carries with it the sort of sterling cast that screams “prestige adaptation”. Certainly, that’s what I hoped for, despite the resoundingly scathing reviews. Unfortunately, they aren’t wrong. Maybe the actors were somehow hoodwinked into signing up, as this movie is a woeful piece of unmitigated pulp, its potential drowned in an unwieldy plot (one that seems to forget what it’s supposed to be about half the time) and directed with the same indiscriminatingly flashy eye that actually benefited Daniel Espinosa’s previous Safe House.
Given the lurid subject matter (it’s based on the 1980s case of the first officially identified Soviet-era serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, albeit set three decades earlier, with activities here confined to the murder of boys) and the oppressively totalitarian fear-based setting, perhaps everyone thought something diligently observed and astutely told was in the offing. Provided they hadn’t read the script, that is. Most of the reviews seem to have focussed on the cast’s accents, but really there’s such a history of this kind of thing it’s a bit baffling that critics were so fixated on such peripheries. It’s a rather facile aspect to take pot shots at, and short of making the whole thing in Russian one I don’t think that could have been satisfactorily addressed. Making it in Russia certainly wouldn’t have happened, since the country (wisely, in retrospect) refused Child 44 a showing there.
Ridley Scott, a vulture for anything vaguely cinematic and also much that isn’t (see Monopoly, if he ends up not making it), produced the picture through production company Scott Free, although presumably plans for the rest of Smith’s Soviet trilogy are on the backburner, or will emerge entirely disconnected now this has bombed (something similar looks to be happening with Lisbeth Salander). The Guardian review of the novel commented that “the desire for the plot to encompass every element of Soviet history eventually overrides any sense of artistic seriousness”, and Richard Price’s adaptation doesn’t appear to have done nearly enough streamlining to bring it into workable form. Everything about this picture’s structure is so suffocating, it loses sight of its essential status as a detective story. As such, tracking down the killer becomes incidental and haphazard. A couple of perceptive insights and that’s it.
The over-extended introduction should have suggested what a slog this would be, taking in child Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) surviving the Holodomor in the 1930s and then becoming a war hero. Cut to 1953 and he’s working for the Ministry of State Security (the MGB), dealing misery and torture to Soviet citizens as a matter of course. His wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) comes under suspicion due to inter-departmental rivalries, and Leo’s adoptive parents are very matter of fact about his need to denounce her; “And so you calculate. One dead. Or four”. But, believing she is pregnant, Leo professes his wife’s innocence and so is reduced to the role of militia officer and sent to Volsk, where Raisa goes from teacher to janitor.
Which is all well and good, if your main thrust is a tale of the fear and paranoia instituted by the Soviet apparatus, where there is no guilt until proven innocent; there’s only guilt, and guilt by association. Hardy is typically robust and haunted, neither a saint nor the monster he fears he has become, but such investment is wasted on him. Rapace, reteaming with her lead actor following The Drop, is solid, but their marital strife dynamic goes around in circles; the picture is two hours-plus not because of how intricate its murder storyline is but because everyone is so distracted by the tribulations of the Demidovs, and the depiction of the Russian establishment really doesn’t require Hollywood fireworks to over-garnish the dish.
This is at its most ham-fisted in the supporting turn from
David Carradine Joel Kinnaman as the psychotic
Vasili, a former subordinate to Leo who, because he went and shot a couple in
the head in front of their children (Leo has a big heart like that; why, he
even adopts the little scruffs at the end, which is very neat, tidy and groan-inducing)
and Leo threatened to kill him for it, now nurses unending malice towards his
former “brother”. Kinnaman’s character is so shamelessly puerile and ridiculous,
I half expected him to turn out to be the child killer.
So Price, who as well as being a respected novelist worked on other (far superior) thrillers such as Sea of Love, Clockers and Ransom (and, er, the Shaft remake) resists any urge he may have had to turn Child 44 into an outright procedural. The potential is so strong, with a state that refuses even the possibility of a killer being out there (“Stalin tells us that murder is strictly a capitalist disease”; as such, even suggesting a murder has been committed is a treasonous act), but the whole remains unrefined and stodgy.
Paddy Considine is the killer Vladimir Malevich (the “Werewolf of Rostov” moniker of the real life case is namechecked), but there’s little he can do with the part. When he has the chance to talk about his crimes to Leo it’s the tritest of killer-and-captor treatises (they were both in orphanages, “We are both killers, you and I”). There’s a notable fake-out where the serial killer’s latest victim turning out to be his son waiting for him at the station, but that’s about as memorable as his scenes get.
I’m guessing Esponisa saw the vastly superior Citizen X (concerning the Chikatilo case) as the same sequence with a boy putting an object – a spoon – on the rails for a train to flatten it is shown in both (“You tried that with a kopek?”, which is used in Citizen X). That picture is more than half an hour shorter, but stuffed full of superlative character work and commentary on the Soviet system and never once strays from point in catching the criminal.
One had to find nuggets where one can in a mess like this. Hardy is always a commanding presence, so any scene with him in is at least watchable, but anyone hoping for electricity when he’s playing against Gary Oldman will be disappointed; nothing here can compare with their encounter in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In any other scenario I’d be itching to see them team up again (they’re all set up for the sequel) but the kibosh can only be a relief.
It gets so that at one point Leo and Raisa head back to Moscow to follow a vital lead (as a husband and wife investigating team, like a Soviet era Hart to Hart), a pointless detour (admitted by Leo) that merely enables yet more skulduggery from the MGB and its informants. It culminates in a bloody train fight, in and of itself well executed, but by this point you’re wondering what movie you’re supposed to be watching.
Likewise, the theoretical apprehension of the killer is completely destroyed by the choice to turn scene into a wild mud fight when Vasili turns up; it might as well be Riggs fighting Mr Joshua at the end of Lethal Weapon for all the dramatic import it provides (scratch that, as Lethal Weapon’s climax towers over it; for a start Richard Donner knows exactly what kind of movie he is making).
There are decent scenes, sequences and performances in here (the opening section, with Jason Clarke as a wanted felon, pretty much establishes the context the picture will labour over another two hours; “I run because you are following me... and when you are arrested you are already guilty”), but one quickly loses patience with its rambling plot. This is at once too closely an observed milieu and setting and too demanding of deference to its subject matter to get away with the shoddy genre tropes littering it. Child 44 shouldn’t have been a slam-bang thriller with liberal doses of action, where a crude race against time to catch the killer is threaded in, in the most transparent and risible manner, no matter how much Espinosa and Price (and presumably Smith) wanted to treat it that way. That Leo gets everything back, a promotion, and his own division is the icing on a terribly crafted cake.
Actually, Leo’s near final scene, with Charles Dance’s Major Grachev (perhaps it’s just Chance bringing gravitas) works pretty well for all its chocolate box neatness, as he persuades Leo to admit Malevich acted as he did because of a “poisoned foreign heart”. Like another of Hardy’s starring roles this year, Legend, there’s a fundamental mishandling of the basic material, but at least there Hardy’s performance was able to rise above the movie’s limitations. Child 44 is sloppy, unfocused, failing to achieve even achieve the status of a passable Hollywood thriller, and entirely wasting its setting, story and cast. "This is not the work of some average idiot", someone says of Malevich; if only that were true of the film. If you want to see a great movie about the Andre Chikatilo case, you should check out Citizen X.