May Issue 2015

By | Movies | Published 4 years ago

Child 44 is the name of Tom Rob Smith’s international bestseller published in 2008. As with all films adapted from a book, for those who have read the novel the film can never suffice. Smith’s book was eerie, filled with suspense, multi-layered, a real thriller. But the film, unfortunately, fails on all these counts.

Set in the early 1950s, on the surface Child 44 is about life in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Director Daniel Espinosa has done a good job of depicting the terror that Stalin’s secret police and teams of ‘investigators’ spread across every corner of society. And how this fear ruined countless lives, creating rifts between husband and wife, father and son, and childhood friends. An innocent man’s reply, when asked why he was trying to escape custody, sums up the scenario well: “Because if you don’t run, you are arrested. And if you are arrested, you are already guilty.”

But running parallel to this story, is an even greater narrative about redemption and the goodness of the human heart. This is the story of Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), a ruthless MGB (Ministry of State Security) officer who hunts down ‘spies’ working against the state. However, Demidov’s perfect life turns upside down when he refuses to renounce his own wife (Noomi Rapace). This is where Demidov’s ruthless façade begins to crack and the possibility that he has a conscience begins to emerge. Demidov is eventually demoted, but takes it upon himself to pursue a serial killer who has murdered 44 young boys — a crime that the state will repress at all costs because “murder is strictly a capitalist disease” that simply cannot exist in the socialist Soviet Union.

This is where the film falters. Demidov’s journey from ruthless killer to reformed saviour is simply not portrayed properly. In fact, without the book as a guide, Demidov’s obsession with the serial killer makes little sense. Yes, the film shows early on that Demidov has a soft spot for children (even though he can kill adults without batting an eyelid), and that his own brother was separated from him when they were young. But his motivation to avenge these children is not convincing enough.

However, this poorly explained contradiction in Demidov’s character — now ruthless killer, now vulnerable detective — might actually work in the film’s favour because it is an interesting commentary on the vacillating nature of most human beings. It seems to say that we are anything but purely good or evil, and that our deeds are not always purely black or white.

The poor Russian accents of most of the cast (none of whom were actually Russian) are also a big letdown. And veteran English actor Gary Oldman, who plays the officer helping Demidov to find the killer, takes the cake. It seems like he isn’t even trying to sound Russian, and his native accent is clearly audible in several scenes. Even Rapace slips up a few times.

There are several crucial points in the film that unveil new information, but they are not fleshed out enough or given adequate screen time. In one scene, the hunt for the killer becomes personal for Oldman’s character, but while the scene makes this suggestion, it is not absolutely clear. The climax itself was not enjoyable because the exchange between the two characters in this scene was too sparse to make much sense, and was not supported with enough of a backstory (like in the book) to have the audience invested in the resolution.

In the end, some bits work in Child 44, but as a whole this thriller fails to surprise and excite.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s May 2015 issue under the headline “Thriller Without Trills”.

Hiba Mahamadi was an Editorial Assistant at Newsline