Tom Hardy! Gary Oldman! Noomi Rapace! Have you heard of this movie? I hadn’t either. It’s a detective story and more. Way more. In fact, it’s excessive.
By Nazreen Booth
In service of my foray into movie criticism, I chose a film I loved. Then, when I sat down, excited for my upteenth viewing of The Lady Vanishes, I changed my mind. Something unknown would be better. I would run in, blind, and seek enlightenment, like a bona fide reviewer. If I picked a classic I’d probably write something favorable. What a bore.
I wasn’t afraid of a potential dud. I wanted to know what makes a good mystery story, and we can learn a lot from failure. So I googled “mystery film”, and took the first one I hadn’t heard of. I ended up with 2015’s Child 44. Eyebrows up. It stars some of my favorite actors: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Vincent Cassel. How was I unfamiliar with this? It must really stink. You can’t have a hidden gem with a cast this visible.
It’s set in 1950s Soviet Union, towards the end of the Stalin era. An MGB agent (played by Hardy), investigates a series of child murders while being thwarted by a police system only interested in eliminating traitors and spies. Perfect. A mystery with political drama and fake accents.
Hardy’s character, Leo, is a Ukraine Holodomor orphan who grows up to become a WW2 hero, and then prominent government security agent. His colleagues gun down alleged traitors indiscriminately, but Leo’s sad upbringing gave him a conscience, and he refuses to take advantage of his occupational licence to go on power-hungry murderous rampages. When an agent’s young son turns up dead, Leo has a hard time accepting the official stance that he was hit by a train when the physical evidence shows he was tortured.
Director Daniel Espinoza shows us the woe of Stalinist Russia with a dark setting and characters who are either grim or crazed. The state’s countless killings of its citizens as well as dismissal of a child’s murder demonstrate a disregard for human life. Leo’s superior, Major Kuzman (played by Cassel) doesn’t want Leo to investigate the slaying, declaring, “murder is a capitalist disease”. Without acknowledgement of foul play, the story creates a unique challenge for its would-be detective. This crime doesn’t happen in utopia.
Sadly, we don’t get enough of the detective story. Leo is too busy dodging agents and dealing with his marriage to really delve into clues, even when he gets a partner in General Nesterov (Gary Oldman). Sure, we get resolution, but it feels like an afterthought. The greatest obstacle to solving the mystery is the government, not the murderer himself, therefore we never get a full picture of the case.
It’s a mystery plus an indictment of Stalin’s rule. Child 44 is trying to be two movies at once, and fails at both because there’s simply not enough time to develop either fully–although, at a 2 hour, 17 minute running time, it tries. In the end, Leo’s hopes for the future tie nicely with what’s coming for Russia; if all the points are made, thematically, getting there is sloppy.
It’s not all bad. Espinosa effectively uses quick, but intricate, shots for fight scenes, as Leo takes on his former comrades. A second viewing reveals the detail, and it’s gory (often involving the crude removal of a body part); but the rapidity provides more realism and places the graphic parts in the subconscious rather than the gag reflex. I’m tired of played-out slow motion fights in movies (Marvel empire, I’m looking at you). I don’t need a timelapse of every punch to know it’s happening.
As you would expect from this elite cast, the acting is great. The accents are fine. But, as soon as we start to empathize with a character (usually Leo), he gets another problem (usually violence). Hardy manages tough-but-vulnerable, but the action outpaces the emotion.
Essentially, Child 44 disappoints on the important levels. If you like action, the cluttered story will distract you. If you like history, you’ll roll your eyes knowing this is another movie telling the narrative of a country the film makers aren’t from (Would Executive Producer Ridley Scott, a Brit, enjoy a Russian movie about Henry VIII or Richard III filmed with actors speaking Russian, but with English accents?). And if you like drama, you’ll notice a heart, but beating weakly.
Most glaringly, barely any time is devoted to the case. I appreciated the film’s treatise on justice delivered through displaying the government’s monopoly on murder. And showing how the state’s dangerous paranoia comes up against Leo’s desire to find truth via his search for a serial killer. But the limp build-up creates an unsatisfactory outcome. Somewhere in here, Leo tries to find a killer while the viewer tries to find the detective story.