There’s a gripping story at the heart of Child 44, Daniel Espinosa’s highly charged adaptation of the first in a trilogy of novels from British author Tom Rob Smith, but all too often this taut crime thriller is crowded out by a barrage of convoluted subplots that distract from the film’s emotionally engaging core.
The problems begin with an over-wrought opening that takes an age to establish Tom Hardy’s relatively simple character. Leo Demidov is a runaway orphan who is somewhat fortuitously transformed into a WW2 hero for his part in the Battle of Berlin.
His wartime exploits eventually land him a high-ranking job with the secret police in Moscow, where he is seemingly more than happy towing the party line that “there is no murder in paradise”, utilising his ferocious interrogation tactics to force those found ‘guilty’ of treason to confess their crimes.
That is, until the son of his long-term comrade, Alexi (Fares Fares), is found dead on the railway lines in suspicious circumstances that appear far from coincidental.
When the focus is solely on this nerve-wracking police procedural-strand, Child 44 feels like a brisk and brilliant thriller. Powered by Hardy’s intense lead performance, this well-crafted plot is tightly-wound and, at times, breathlessly tense as Demidov sets out to track down the man responsible for a growing spate of brutal child murders whilst simultaneously avoiding the clutches of his former employers, led by Joel Kinnaman’s unsettlingly sadistic Vasili Nikitin, after his wife (Rapace) is accused of working as a western spy.
The real issues start to arise when the film allows itself to become bogged down in its myriad meandering subplots. Espinosa and screenwriter Richard Price struggle with getting to grips with Smith’s dense material, which itself was criticised for trying to encompass every element of Soviet society at the expense of narrative clarity. The film is guilty of the same flaw, attempting to highlight issues surrounding criminality, education, orphanages and homosexuality amongst many others by steering attention towards under-developed sidelines that never lead anywhere fruitful.
It’s part of an admittedly admirable ambition to expose the true horrors of the Stalin regime, using Demidov’s descent from gem of the Moscow elite to disgraced traitor forced to toil in the dirt to portray the Soviet Union’s troubles in microcosm. The only with fault with this idea is that almost nothing shown here could be considered revelatory. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Russian history will know that communist Russia was not the crime-free utopia Stalin claimed, and Child 44 is far too distracted with the rest of the plot to find the time to explore the extent of the era’s atrocities in any meaningful way.
Espinosa does, however, effectively portray the atmosphere of paranoia and constant fear of the time by utilising disguised camera angles that cause us to consider who else might be watching and question who, if anyone, can be trusted. The Safe House-director also brings a unique visual flair to the occasional action sequences, executing taut fist-fights and chase scenes in an immersive, visceral style rarely seen in period thrillers.
He also succeeds in drawing excellent performances from some of his cast. Hardy, of course, gives a typically vigorous turn as Demidov, setting the audience on edge with an edgy demeanour that hints at a man all too comfortable with committing acts of violence. We always care about his plight, however, due to Hardy’s ever-remarkable talent for revealing the kind, vulnerable sole beneath brutish characters, doing so here through the pain of Demidov’s unrequited love for Raisa, who cuttingly admits to marrying him out of fear rather than romantic attachment.
Paddy Considine is equally affecting as opportunistic child killer Vladimir Malevich, eking an unusual depth of pathos from a normally despicable character by visibly collapsing under the weight of his sins, which makes his scenes of self-torture all the more disturbing.
The final scenes are undoubtedly the film’s best with Espinosa and Price delivering a relentlessly gripping conclusion that offers enough moments of purification to leave this engaging-yet-uneven film on a note of lasting poignancy, whilst also setting events nicely for further adaptations – if audience numbers warrant the effort, that is.
Runtime: 137 mins; Genre: Crime Thriller; Released: 17 April 2015;
Director: Daniel Espinosa; Screenwriter: Richard Price;
Starring: Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Joel Kinnaman, Noomi Rapace
Click here to watch the trailer for Child 44