Joseph Stalin-era Soviet Union was cold, callous and colourless at least according to Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa who directs mystery thriller ‘Child 44’, based on Tom Rob Smith’s best-selling novel of the same name. Tom Hardy leads an impressive top-billed cast as disgraced military cop Leo Demidov, who independently heads up an enquiry into a series of vicious child murders that are ignored by a corrupt government. With his wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) accused of espionage and colleague Vasili (Joel Kinnaman) proving a problem at every turn, he turns to an experienced General Nesterov (Gary Oldman) for assistance in his manhunt, resulting in an intense investigative film enhanced by strong acting and crisp cinematography.
After a slow start that admittedly lectures more than it entertains in history-lesson fashion, the character-driven plot begins to take shape. Not following the standard three-act structure, the narrative sets itself up establishing a multitude of characters and then detours off on tangents, switching focus at points but maintaining a stronghold grip on the central performance that holds it together. Espinosa shows his capabilities as a director in sharply choreographed action sequences which benefit from tight, precise editing. Fight scenes both on a train and later in a puddle of mud are gruelling, and prove to be stand out moments amongst the slow but measured dialogue-laden sections that surround them.
The thick Russian accents on show are what jump out from the performances at first glance as many of the main players are British, posing the frequently-asked-question over why locals aren’t used for historical pieces such as this. The answer is provided in Tom Hardy’s turn as he welcomes another challenging, complex leading role. His fierce character is flawed but fascinating, defying the odds against him to do what he believes is right. Once you see past the aforementioned accents which are often dodgier than a backstreet vendor pirozhki, there are others to admire within the supporting cast, helped by the rich characters adapted from the book. Kinnaman is really good as one of the many spiteful villains of the piece, and Rapace is nuanced but emotive in parts. In a packed out troupe, Gary Oldman, Vincent Cassel and Jason Clarke fall into the sorely underused category.
‘There is no murder in paradise’ is a line that is repeated a few times during conversations throughout Richard Price’s screenplay, referring to the apparent motto of the brainwashed regime at that time, avoiding to recognise foul play under their supreme leader. This biased depiction has sadly but unsurprisingly resulted in a less than friendly reception from Russia following the film’s release. In spite of the inaccuracies and uncertain sub-plotting, it is very well made and possesses the appeal of old fashioned inscrutability. ‘Child 44’ is anchored by another visceral and versatile performance from one of our biggest acting talents, who portrays a family man at heart with psychotic tendencies, but a moral compass just robust enough to make us support him.
Writer and director Carol Morley presents a coming-of-age story about teenagers in an all-girls school but one that avoids the expected scenarios of the modern teen movie genre. Setting her tale in the late 1960s, it relies on old-fashioned storytelling methods that are suitably accompanied by beautifully bewitching imagery. The plot centres around Lydia Lamb, a mixed-up girl from a broken home played by Game of Thrones’ starlet Maisie Williams. Always in the shadow of her uber-confident best friend Abbie (Florence Pugh), she yearns to discover herself and where her place is within the disciplined, cliquey society she finds herself in. At home, she is teased by her peculiar older brother Kenneth (Joe Cole) and neglected by her agoraphobic mother Eileen (Maxine Peake), which result in a bout of odd behaviour which strangely begins to spread throughout her classmates.
A promising opening introduces us to the core characters and the environment, inviting us into the close-knit community of pupils and of course the teachers as well. There’s humour and charm in the beginning, giving off an impression of what Mean Girls would have been like, had it taken place in sixties Britain. As the story develops and a bizarre epidemic of fainting takes over in a highly repetitive, and often laughable manner, things take a sour turn as all the hard work in establishing an interesting premise is undone. The impressive cinematography and creative technical flourishes don’t make up for the amateurish writing and abysmal acting.
Williams appears to be unnatural in her performance, and the twitch I assume she attempts to pass off as a nervous tic seems forced and becomes increasingly distracting and irritating as her character becomes more warped and ridiculous. Stuck amongst the awfulness, Florence Pugh brings quality and charisma with her youthfulness, giving a memorable turn as BFF Abbie that unfortunately gets cut short, and of course Maxine Peake steals pretty much every scene she is in with her usual dominating presence.
‘The Falling’ feels like a sorely missed opportunity, starting with the best intentions before becoming lazy and sluggish around the halfway mark and then losing its way completely. Carol Morley definitely has an eye for interesting visuals and some of the camera-work is great, but inconsistent shots and the transitions between them feel as though they’ve been tossed together incoherently and the artistic experimentation applied comes across as being ostentatious. The film actually has a lot in common with the pubescent adolescents within it; full of hormones and desperately seeking attention.
The western setting has provided a backdrop for all sorts of films, but the traditional revenge story is undoubtedly one that is suited to the style and can utilise the good guy/bad guy stereotypes that are synonymous with the cinematic history of the genre. Adding a Scandinavian flavour to the formula in ‘The Salvation’ is Danish filmmaker Kristian Levring who was one of the pioneers behind the avant-garde movement Dogme 95. The leading man, known only as Jon, is played by fellow countryman Mads Mikkelsen, and his survival chances are left slim to none following events that cruelly take his family away from him. His initial act of vengeance starts an almighty feud with land baron Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), his henchman The Corsican (Eric Cantona) and the rest of the local community. With his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) his only ally, can he overturn his odds and leave town alive?
The narrative wastes no time in establishing the back-story of the film’s protagonist with a prologue and setting up the conflict, involving harrowing scenes in the opening thirty minutes or so. The seriousness falters at times to make way for more light-hearted notes as the kill count rises which create some minor tonal inconsistencies. The plotting avoids the beaten track to subvert expectations every time the predictable route is hinted at, and big performances help in building intensity in the inevitable Mexican standoff scenarios. Mikkelsen and Morgan are equally effective in their rivalry, the former putting his own spin on cowboy heroics whilst the latter brings frightening menace and brutality to the villain role. Eva Green is superb in a totally mute but subtly moving performance as the long-suffering Madelaine, who is Delarue’s widowed sister-in-law. Even former footballer Eric Cantona doesn’t let the side down when it comes to acting and gets by hardily in a vicious sidekick part.
Visually, ‘The Salvation’ tips it’s Stetson to the classic westerns, and in particular the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s with wide desolate landscapes and extreme use of bloody violence. It’s a gripping, gruelling experience, fitting for the big screen and the strong central performance is key in letting the dustiness of the film engulf us in Jon’s relentless fight for righteousness. Often in his struggle, just when it he seems to have got the upper hand and someone comes to his aid, events take a sudden downturn and he is back to square one. In spite of his misfortunes, he never fails to rise to the challenges he is faced with, making him an endearing and entertaining western hero who you would gladly ride alongside on horseback. White horses of course.