I’m going against the current on Daniel Espinosa’s Child 44 by simply not hating it, but I’ll go further and say it’s actually good — with qualifications. It’s too long, too slow, too overstuffed and too meandering, yes. In fact, it’s a bit of a mess. But there are messes and messes, and Child 44 is in the category of a fascinating mess — one that works a great deal of the time. One of the more common complaints with the movie is that old saw, “The book was better.” I couldn’t say, but as far as criticizing a film, it’s kind of beside the point. Books and movies are two distinct entities — each with its own strengths and drawbacks. The real question should be whether the film works on its own merits, and I’d say Child 44 more or less does — assuming you realize it has little interest in its mystery plot and a great deal of interest in depicting the start of the unraveling of Stalin’s Russia. It is in this regard that Child 44 is most effective. If you go to it expecting a procedural mystery about tracking down a child murderer, you will be disappointed — and then some.
The film does involve a series of child murders that drive the action, but it’s by no means a mystery plot — or if it is, it’s a strangely botched one. The identity of the killer is established fairly early and just dropped into our laps. It’s also fairly perfunctory as an investigative affair. The fact is that the murders mostly function as the means that help to change true believer Stalinist MGB agent Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) into an active force working against what the party has taught him. He has other reasons for being disillusioned — being demoted, disgraced and sent to a miserable job in the hinterlands because he refuses to denounce his wife, Raisa, (Noomi Rapace) as a traitor, as well as generally being troubled by the excesses of the agency he’s part of. But the murders help to lay bare the central lie of the Stalinist Soviet Union because they are dismissed as accidents, since — according to the Party Line — murder is a product of a capitalist society and does not exist in Stalin’s “paradise.” The murders also serve the more utilitarian function of tying his Moscow life to his one in the provinces since identical ones turn up in his new locale. They also help to form a bond with his new commander, General Nesterov (Gary Oldman).
What the film really offers is a grim and disturbing picture of life in a nightmare that insists it’s a paradise. (It has certainly disturbed the current Russian government — sufficiently so for them to ban Child 44 outright.) But it is not an unrelentingly grim or downbeat work since it’s mostly about the redemption of Leo and of his marriage to Raisa. It’s about the end of the Stalin era. (Those who’ve complained about the film’s “improbable” ending seem to be unaware that the ending takes place after Stalin’s death and at the beginning of Kruschev’s denunciation of his predecessor.) It isn’t a happy ending, but it is a hopeful one.
One might reasonably fault the film for its use of affected accents. While I certainly question the wide array of accents — from heavy (Hardy) to relatively mild (Oldman) — the affectation itself worked for me because it felt appropriate to the era. That’s to say if this film was from 1953, rather than about it, this would have been the approach. I also admit that the film is too long and that it would have benefitted from losing 15-20 minutes, but there’s more than enough good here to make it worth a look. Rated R for violence, some disturbing images, language and a scene of sexuality.