A muddled story and disjointed motivations cripple Daniel Espinosa’s Child 44. Adapted from Tom Rob Smith’s novel of the same name, the film lacks conviction in any of its varied messages, dashing between half-baked concepts and subplots, which are mirrored by Espinosa’s dizzyingly-active direction. Devoid of focus and purpose, Child 44 prevents itself from accomplishing anything real; a film seemingly content with the simple and universally-accepted notion that “Stalinism was bad.”
From a quick overview of Stalin’s brutal starvation of Ukrainian nationals to a daring orphanage escape, Child 44 transitions into the death throws of WWII. A quick match cut places us in the midst of a loud and visually vertiginous battle, the pursuit of which is futile. The crux of this fire fight is to bring the hero (Tom Hardy as Leo Demidov) and villain (Joel Kinnaman as Vasili Nikitin) to our attention while providing some unneeded background information. Demidov’s wartime bravery leads to a successful military career with the MGB (predecessor of the KGB), and a loving wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace). We are reminded that these were shadowy times in the Soviet Union, as an officer need only possess blind loyalty to secure advancement.
Demidov’s life is thrown into chaos when his brother’s son is found dead near a train yard. Having declared murder a condition of the capitalist west, Stalin’s government is quick to declare the death an accident despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Child 44 proceeds in a relentless attempt to condemn Soviet Russia, neglecting interesting avenues of discussion and dark pathways of narrative enlightenment along the way.
Child 44 is shot much in the same way as other standard thrillers: disorienting editing to disguise the absence of choreography, a repeated shot of a train to denote a locational change and close-ups for deep emotion that has already made clear through dialogue and score. Espinosa compounds his boilerplate imagery with several action-packed sub plots — proof that the addition of tension for the sake of tension lends an oppositional effect. Unable to concentrate on any of the contradictory plots, the audience is left bewildered by the meandering pace and frustrating sidestepping — any resentment towards the almost-satirical U.S.S.R is transformed into an incessant boredom. The child killings become an afterthought when assaulted with the variety of governmental hinderances and roadblocks. Even with these various procedural annoyances, the gruesome murders are easily solved. Screenwriter Richard Price introduces the audience to the sadistic madman no more than halfway in, rendering any speculation or further thought pointless. All that remains is a husk of a thriller, as tension is replaced by irritation, and the knowledge that Espinosa will intermittently intervene to halt Child 44‘s progression.
Impeded by the narrative mire are the many talented members of the cast. Tom Hardy’s Russian accent may have been an initial point of contention, but his acting ability is pure and unstoppable. Hardy brings a raw, unhinged energy to Demidov; he is a man torn from power by his morals and disgraced by his own emotions. Rapace is the antitheses of Hardy, a woman entirely in control of her feelings. Fearing for her life in the tyrannical Soviet state, she is a woman determined to survive. Exuding profound sadness with every glance and scowl, Rapace’s Raisa is a woman forced to live inside her own head. Despite the disheartening reminders of the film’s poor quality, the scarcity of bad performances is a plus.
A Kafka-esque condemnation of Stalin’s government ham-handedly plopped into a John le Carré spy thriller, Child 44 is ambiguous cinematic fluff. With no stakes, intrigue or even a message, Espinosa concentrated too much on what the novel was, and not enough on what it could be.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.