In the unhappy tradition of “The Night of the Generals,” but by way of “Gorky Park,” novelist-screenwriter Richard Price and director Daniel Espinosa offer their adaptation of Tom Rob Smith’s bestseller, a Russian serial-killer potboiler based loosely on the case of Andrei Chikatilo, who murdered more than fifty women and children between 1978 and 1990 and was executed in 1994. Smith, however, moved the case to 1953, the final year of Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, and presented it in terms of the struggle by one honest cop to solve it despite the regime’s insistence that murder is a crime inconceivable in a worker’s paradise. He also added lots of domestic and professional strife to the narrative. The result, unfortunately, is a hopeless muddle of clumsy police procedural, fraught domestic fireworks and heavy-handed totalitarian tropes, presented in the grimmest possible fashion and drawn out to insufferable length.
Tom Hardy, who again suffers from his Bane bane (although his face isn’t covered with a mask this time around, the thick accent he sports makes many of his lines virtually indecipherable), plays Leo Demidov, whom we first glimpse escaping from a brutal orphanage during the Ukrainian famine of 1933 and then becoming a heroic figure as the result of an Iwo Jima-style photograph at the capture of the Reichstag in 1945. In 1953 he’s a senior officer in the MGB, the predecessor of the KGB, hunting down suspected traitors like Anatoly Brodsky (Jason Clarke). After Brodsky’s summary execution his superior (Vincent Cassel) gives Leo the most difficult assignment of all: finding the goods on his own wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace), a schoolteacher whose colleagues are being carted off for crimes against the state. The charges against her bring a sort of Satanic joy to Leo’s nemesis Vasili Nikitin (Joel Kinnaman), a subordinate who proved a coward during their joint army service whom Demidov had ignored since then and had recently treated roughly for killing a farming couple that had helped Brodsky in his flight.
Demidov’s refusal to denounce his wife, whom he believes pregnant with their child, leads to his disgrace and their exile to Volsk, a grimy backwater where he will serve under the local commander, General Timor Nesterov (Gary Oldman), an old guard soldier who initially believes that Leo has been sent undercover to investigate him. They develop a bond, however, when the brutalized body of a boy is discovered and Leo suggests that he’s the victim of a killer who earlier in Moscow had similarly murdered Demidov’s godson. In time the two will work together to plot out a long series of deaths attributable to the same perpetrator. But in a regime that denies the very existence of murderers, they—along with Raisa—will have to work surreptitiously to gather evidence, and Leo and his wife will have to dodge plenty of obstacles, in particular the machinations of Vasili, who’s intent on using any measures to destroy Demidov entirely and, for good measure, stealing Raisa to feed his own perverse lust. There’s what passes for a happy ending under the circumstances (with Stalin’s death comes a thaw), but it’s hardly the cause of dancing in Red Square.
The preceding may have already indicated the picture’s major problem—the narrative is extremely cluttered, and in trying to cover so many plot tangents it doesn’t do justice to any of them. The one that suffers most is the central serial-killer element. That it’s presented so decorously—the child victims are simply shown being quietly taken away by the stalker, and except in one instance their corpses aren’t even glimpsed—might be considered a virtue, a triumph of taste over sensationalism. But in the process the perpetrator is slighted; Paddy Considine suggests, in his few scenes, deeper layers to Vladimir Malevich than are examined here, but his inner life is only just hinted at, and when he’s given a final speech that seems cribbed from Fritz Lang’s masterpiece “M,” it only emphasizes how much more psychological reality Peter Lorre was given the opportunity to invest in such a tormented man.
What takes up much of the film are the plot strands involving the relationship between Leo and Raisa, put under terrible pressure by the suspicion she’s a traitor, and the state persecution of treason, represented by the brutal Vasili. The first could be moving, since both Hardy and Rapace are excellent actors, but instead it comes off as drab, even though Price and Espinosa try to liven it up with a sequence in which they sneak back to Moscow to collect evidence and a prolonged (and imperfectly staged) fight between the two and the bunch of thugs on a train. The latter scene is connected with Vasili’s implacable hatred for Demidov, and while it’s dramatically defensible to portray Nikitin as the embodiment of a state system of repression, Kinnaman’s performance is simply too ghoulish to allow any hint of subtlety. Oldman, also sporting a thick accent, does his usual reliable work, and some of the supporting cast—like Charles Dance as Cassel’s eventual successor—make impressions in fleeting roles. Overall, though, the actors are undermined by the script’s unvaryingly gloomy tone and Espinosa’s phlegmatic pacing, carried through by editors Pietro Scalia and Dylan Tichenor.
The grimness is accentuated by the visuals, from Jan Roelfs’ production design and the art direction supervised by to Sophie Hervieu’s set decoration and Jenny Beavan’s costumes. Oliver Wood’s washed-out widescreen cinematography—which presents everything in bleak grays, greens and blues, though the images themselves are nicely composed—adds to the emotional tepidity, as does Jon Ekstrand’s score.
“Child 44” ends on what’s supposed to be a happy note with the slight thaw that came with Stalin’s death, a recognition of Demidov’s police skill, and an effort on the part of him and Raisa to rectify a lack in their marital life and simultaneously make amends for Vasili’s brutality under Leo’s command. But Gorbachev’s glasnost was still three decades off, of course, and the suggestion that the change is at most marginal is historically accurate. Dramatically, however, it ends this lugubrious picture on a note more downbeat than uplifting.