IGN.COM – If nothing else, director Daniel Espinosa’s Child 44 has put together an impeccable cast made up of Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Joel Kinnaman and Jason Clarke — and despite a hodgepodge of phlegmy Russian accents, each actor gives it his or her all in this Stalin-era crime-thriller. That said, as an adaptation of Rob Tom Smith’s 2008 novel, Child 44 doesn’t quite translate on screen, as drab storytelling and overstuffed plot take a lot of the steam out of its central mystery.
Set in 1953 Soviet Russia, the story follows Leo Demidov (Hardy), a prominent MGB agent who is disgraced when he refuses to denounce his wife Raisa (Rapace) as a traitor to their country. Exiled from Moscow to the muddy hinterlands, Leo and Raisa ally with General Mikhail Nesterov (Oldman) to track down a serial killer who preys on young boys. However, their quest for justice directly opposes a system-wide cover-up enforced by Leo’s sadistic rival, Vasili (Kinnaman), who insists the childrens’ murders — all 44 of them — were “accidents.” As members the MGB recite over and over again, “There is no murder in paradise.”
As far as style and tone are concerned, Child 44 is a humorless affair, often emphasizing the grimness that lurks behind the Iron Curtain. These are not happy times, and most of the characters know it. Adding to Leo’s personal struggle is the fact that all of his cohorts refuse to see the evidence right in front of them, making his job twice as hard.
One would think this would heighten the suspense, but on the contrary it has the opposite effect. As events slowly unfold — very slowly; Leo and Raisia aren’t even deported until 40-ish minutes into the film — Leo is able to slowly piece together the murderer’s tactics. The thing is, we as audience members are always one step ahead of Leo, since we witness the murders firsthand and the murderer’s identity is inexplicably revealed halfway through the movie. In addition to spoiling the “whodunnit” aspect of the film, this also undermines a lot of the tension set up in the first half. As a result, the narrative becomes far less interesting, and we’re left to wait for Leo to catch up with us.
On the bright side, Child 44 has good production values and captures the dreary atmosphere of Stalin-era Russia quite nicely. The sets and costumes look particularly great, and the film has a kind of dinginess that feels raw and gritty. Unfortunately, that dinginess is occasionally to the film’s detriment, specifically in the action scenes; the characters are usually so bundled up and dirty that it’s hard to read who’s who on screen. That becomes a pretty big problem, as these scenes generally mark key turning points in Leo’s investigation.
Like I mentioned, the actors’ Russian accents can also be distracting. Not only does it not really make sense for the characters to be speaking broken English to one another, but the accents themselves falter for many of the performers — most notably Oldman, whose Russian inflection is about as convincing as his American one (that is, not very). Hardy’s accent probably sounds the most accurate to me, but even his lines only come out in curt mumbles most of the time.
Regardless, the performances are solid. By now, Hardy has his brutish, ruffian persona down to a science, and he plays Leo with the same type of subtle intimidation. Rapace gives a standout performance as Rasia, and plays the character with distinct but subtle internal conflict. This is especially the case when she’s paired with Hardy, and together they bring about some of the film’s most emotionally resonant moments (of which there are few). Kinnaman, on the other hand, does a fine job, but his character is written rather poorly and comes off as an incompetent villain. Meanwhile, Gary Oldman’s part is surprisingly small, and the actor honestly doesn’t have much to do here. Same goes for Clarke, although his character is at least more central to the story.
Ultimately, Child 44 amounts to being just okay, and that’s a shame considering the talented cast. While the film’s period aspects are well-executed and the performances are strong, the story is poorly plotted, both in terms of pacing and structure. At a sluggish 137 minutes, it’s hard to know if the movie would have been better with some diligent re-editing, but as is Child 44 is not very well told and probably makes a better book than a feature film.
While the acting’s good and the period setting is impressively executed, Child 44 lacks a compelling mystery. At almost two-and-a-half hours long, the story is packed with unnecessary subplots and scenes that do nothing to progress the plot. Even when the story is interesting, it’s often marred by dim presentation and faulty Russian accents. In the end, Child 44 is not a bad crime-thriller, but it could have been way better, especially given the talent involved.