Daniel Espinosa’s Child 44 is an effective but somewhat laborious 137 minute film about a Russian serial killer preying on children in 1953, during Josef Stalin’s reign of terror. Communism is in full swing. People are being picked up without warning or reason, charged and forced to name names of alleged collaborators that are either spies for other countries or disloyal to Mother Russia. Ain’t Communism grand?
Tom Hardy is Leo Demidov, a MGB (state security) officer who is first charged with rooting out perceived enemies of the state. He is quite good at his job, but eventually the list of perceived enemies circles to his own wife, Raisa (NoomI Rapace, who worked with Tom Hardy on The Drop). Leo has choices but none of them are any good. He can name just her and have her picked up by the KGB for interrogation. He can do nothing, in which they both will be arrested as well as their families and thrown into a deep, dark hole in a gulag to either starve or freeze to death. Leo loves Raisa, even though she is not with him out of love, but out of fear, because of what he does and who he is. Their relationship is interesting because Leo truly loves Raisa and professes so, whereas Raisa is quiet and reserved about it. She never really tips her hand as to her own feelings towards Leo and it adds to the mysterious nature of their marriage.
When a young child is found brutally murdered along the train tracks, it is almost immediately ruled an accidental death, but a witness is found by the parents of the murdered child that says this was no accident. Couple the investigation with the swirling accusations that Raisa is not loyal to the Communist state, it is not long before Leo and Raisa are arrested and sent to a colony where others have been sent, accused of disloyalty to the Soviet Union. When the bodies of children start turning up dead, Leo knows they have a serial killer on their hands. But how can this be? Stalin said, “There are no murders in paradise,” meaning that murderers only happen in Capitalist nations. Leo, now working with his new boss, General Mikhail Nesterov (Gary Oldman), is determined to find the killer before he strikes again.
Child 44 has a lot going on and some of the material works better than others, but at the heart of this film is a good mystery and Espinosa’s direction shows the hopeless lives that lived under the iron-fisted rule of Stalin and the hard line Communists. They were all basically murderers and butchers in their own right but hid behind the government to get away with it. Espinosa and Richard Price’s script (based on the novel by Tom Rob Smith) is an intelligent but it still has some heart to it. But they have thrown in the relationship between Leo and Vasli (Joe Kinnaman, who worked with Espinosa in 2010’s Easy Money) which seems contrived. The two hate each other and are always trying to one-up the other in their jobs. Then there’s the subplots. One with Leo’s boss at the Kremlin, Major Kuzmin (Vincent Cassel). Another one with Leo and one of his fellow officers who lost a child to the maniac killer. One more with Vladimir Malevich (Paddy Considine) and finally, Anatoly Brodsky (Jason Clarke) who is one of Leo’s prey.
Child 44 as a book, is the first in a trilogy of books, by Tom Rob Smith and although this book and subsequent film are fiction, they are based on the real life serial killer, Andrei Chikaltio who preyed on women and children from the 1970’s until his capture in 1990. He was called the Butcher of Rostov, The Red Ripper, The Forest Ripper or The Rostov Ripper. He was convicted of 53 killings, but claimed his number was about 56 and was executed in 1994. The have taken some liberties with the time line, setting the film in 1953 presumably, to achieve the added effect of Communism in full swing. No one is honest about anything so it affects everyone else’s life and everyone lives in fear of being picked up for sedition to the Motherland. Espinosa and Price are able to catch that kind of horrifying fear of living where truth is shunned and can get you locked up. Your guilt does not even have to be proven. The accusation is enough.
If Espinosa and Price had honed down the script and did away with some of the less then interesting subplots, Child 44 would have been better than it turned out. It is a slow paced film, but that was part of the charm, for me. I believed this is what it would have been like at that time in a Communist controlled country. Trying to get something done, finding the truth and punishing those responsible were not as important as furthering the Communist ideology, even if it was responsible for the deaths of millions of Russians. Ideology trumps everything and everyone else is subservient to it.
As a slow, pot boiler mystery, Child 44 works. As a love story, it works to a point. Rapace and Hardy generate some chemistry and work well together. The supporting cast is excellent if somewhat unneeded and only succeed sometimes in bogging down the story. Still, Hardy is terrific as Leo. He is a tough, intelligent man who sees the cover-up of the murders as necessary, at first because of the powers that be, but then realizes it is up to him to do the right thing. Everyone seems to have adapted the Russian accent exceedingly well and the film it shot in a grainy, dirty noirish mode that is effective. This film is creepy to look at with all of its bland colors, greyish cinematography and Hardy adds the edge he needs to make Child 44 worth watching. Jon Ekstrand does a fine job with the score which adds to the creep factor.
Child 44 was shot on a budget of about 50 million, but only brought in about 13 million, so I doubt there will be any more films from this writer in this series. Too bad. I would have liked to seen more of these characters developed as people as it would enhance the story. Maybe the studio can sort this out but that will be a tall order and probably won’t happen any time soon. Child 44 is not a bad film, but it is an acquired taste that worked well enough for me to recommend it.
Child 44- *** out 5
Child 44- Rated R for violence, language and adult situations
Child 44- Run time is 137 minutes