Back in the U.S.S.R.
There is no murder in paradise” we’re told more than once in Child 44, a sturdy adap of British author Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 award-winning novel inspired by the case of Soviet child-killer Andrei Chikatilo. And it’s this portrait of “paradise” that most fascinates. If movies about Stalin-era Russia tend to focus on revolutions or Cold War clashes, it’s refreshing to see the daily paranoia of life behind the Iron Curtain.
Beginning in 1933, a brief prologue spirits us across the following 20 years by way of introduction to Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), a war hero turned secret policeman. His days involves hunting down suspected traitors, as in an early scene when he confronts Jason Clarke’s Brodsky, but even here we see he’s a man of principle, sparing lives and punishing wrongdoers. Yet things take a turn when the child of colleague Alexei (Fares Fares) is killed.
At first, Leo rejects the notion this is anything but a one-off but Smith’s novel – adapted here by Clockers novelist Richard Price – is really a detective story with deeper ambitions. When Leo makes an enemy of colleague Vasili (Joel Kinnaman) Leo’s wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace), is accused of being a spy; after refusing to denounce her Leo is exiled to a grim outpost run by one General Nesterov (Gary Oldman), and the child killings mount up...
As directed by Daniel Espinosa, who made South African-set thriller Safe House, the cast of Child 44 are exemplary. Hardy is immaculate as Leo, from accent to demeanour. Now on his fourth film with Hardy, Oldman is a pleasure to watch, and even the smallest of roles have been carefully cast, with the likes of Vincent Cassel, Paddy Considine and Clarke all enjoying their moment.
There’s artistry here, too; one edit that cuts from the squeal of a train’s brakes to the screams of children sends a shiver down the spine. But there’s also sluggish pacing that’s detrimental to an already chunky running time; the final act could’ve been tighter while the child-murder backdrop never quite satisfies, not least because the mystery behind the murderer never amounts to much.
“Hero, monster – we are both killers, you and I,” the culprit tells Leo when finally confronted, Child 44 being a character study about a demons-plagued man trying to do the right thing under extreme political and social circumstances. With Espinosa’s team neatly recreating the drabness of Soviet life – all muted greys and reds – it certainly looks and feels authentic.