Matthew Turner delves into the gripping if flawed crime thriller, set against the backdrop of ’50s Soviet Russia.
Based on the first in a best-selling trilogy of novels by Tom Rob Smith, Child 44 is set in 1953 Moscow and stars Tom Hardy as war hero-turned-MGB agent Leo Demidov, whose job is to hunt down traitors to Stalin’s regime.
When the body of his best friend’s son is found naked and tortured, Leo is compelled to investigate, but the official Communist Party line is that “there is no murder in paradise”, so he’s ordered by his boss (Vincent Cassel) to attribute the murder to a train accident. “A train doesn’t undress a boy!” the distraught mother screams, and you have to admit she has a point.
When Leo kicks against his superiors, he and his wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) are shipped off to the industrial sinkhole of Volsk, where his new boss Nesterov (Gary Oldman) immediately assumes that he is under suspicion, such is the level of paranoia.
However, Leo discovers a new trail of bodies that leads him to believe the murders are linked, so he persuades a reluctant Nesterov to help him investigate. Meanwhile, Leo’s jealous colleague Alexei (Joel Kinnaman, shifty as ever), who has designs on both Raisa and Leo’s job, dedicates himself to ending his rival’s career, by any means necessary.
Hardy delivers an engagingly committed performance, nailing the soft Russian accent and portraying Leo as an intelligent and compassionate man forced into an impossible situation. The supporting cast offer up a veritable smorgasbord of Russian accents, some of which are more successful than others, but there’s strong work from Rapace (Hardy’s co-star in The Drop), whose complex relationship with her husband is at times more compelling than the central mystery.
Elsewhere, Kinnaman is effective, but perhaps a little over the top as hissable villain Alexei, while the root cause of his hatred for Leo is never entirely clear. On a similar note, the film largely wastes Oldman and frustratingly side-lines a top-notch cast that includes Paddy Considine, Vincent Cassel and Charles Dance as Cassel’s boss.
The script, by Richard Price, offers a chilling portrait of a system that’s even more dangerous than the serial killers it ignores, and director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) creates a suitably thick atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia. There are also a number of busy, weighty action sequences, including perhaps the muddiest fight scene ever filmed.
Unfortunately, the film can’t quite sustain its arse-challenging 137 minute running time and it drags considerably in the middle section, to the point where you may find your attention wandering somewhere around Child 27 or so. In addition, the final act is a little disappointing, given the weight of what’s gone before, so much so that it feels like the production ran out of money and had to wrap everything up as quickly as possible.
In short, this is an atmospheric and superbly acted thriller, but the lack of focus in the middle section means it’s not quite as satisfying as it should have been.
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