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.
See the trailer: