The thing about period pieces is the viewer needs to already have some knowledge of the period in question. Child 44 would have been better as a Russian film for several reasons, but as an American/English production for American and English audiences, it falls flat.
The film is set in 1953 U.S.S.R following Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), an MGB agent tasked with finding and killing spies, which seem nonexistent in the film. Early, he is asked to investigate his wife, Raisa Demidova (Noomi Rapace). In a second, unrelated plot, a serial killer who preys on children stalks the railroads connected to Moscow, but Demidov is not allowed to investigate because murder cannot exist in the perfect communist state.
The two plot lines compete with and take away from, rather than compliment, each other.
I can see why they did it. The point of the film is to expose the cruelty and paranoia of living in the Soviet Union under Stalin, even as a government agent. If the plot were Demidov investigating his wife, the advertisements would have been for a neo-noir spy thriller with a femme fatale and the implication that foreign enemies really are out to get them, which the film implies there aren’t, but the serial killer storyline alone doesn’t have the same emotional impact as the inverted love story. But after seeing the film’s execution, it’s clear that the movie should have been crafted differently, either by sticking to one storyline and trusting itself to express all its themes through just one of them or by combining them more thoroughly. As is, the child killer plot stagnates until Demidov and Demidova are already exiled. It feels like watching two movies back to back, both of which are somber and overlong.
It’s not bad, by any stretch — Child 44 is actually quite good. The film makes heavy use of symbolism, particularly with children and trains.
In an establishing scene where Demidov’s unit is tracking suspected dissident Anatoly Brodsky (Jason Clarke), one of his comrades, Vasili Nikitin (Joel Kinnaman), executes the family that was sheltering him. They expressly beg, “Our children! The future of Russia!” establishing that the phrase “Children are the future” will be taken to the letter in this film. Children, the future, are almost all abandoned, and many are near the railroad tracks, which represent death. They are being brutally killed, but it is illegal to investigate their murders or help them in many other ways. The party symbolically destroys/turns a blind eye to the destruction of Russia’s future, as represented by the children.
Trains are extremely important in the film. They don’t just represent death — they’re where the killer operates and spends most of his life. His victims are kidnapped from nearby the tracks, and that’s where they’re found. Demidov and Demidova are exiled via train, and are nearly murdered on one later. At one point, a man about to be taken for homosexuality kills himself with a train.
The symbols combine in one scene, when the killer asks a child on the tracks where he’s going, and the child, representing Russia’s future, says “no where.”
The film was banned in Russia for making the country look — culture minister Vladimir Medinsky actually said this — like Mordor. This is no reason to ban a movie, but there is a significant degree of racial ignorance involved in this film. It’s made by Western production company Lionsgate and features a slew of Western stars. The broad international casts features Englishmen Hardy, Gary Oldman and Charles Dance; Swedes Rapace and Kinnaman; Australian Clarke; and Frenchman Vincent Cassel, but no actual Russians. They’re all using the only version of the Russian accent that is really taught in acting school, so they all sound like the same Bond villain. Director Daniel Espinosa is also Swedish.
The general Western understanding of Soviet history doesn’t extend much further than “They were the bad guys,” and that doesn’t cut it for watching this movie. Demidov is a survivor of the Holodomor in the Ukraine, as well as a hero of the Battle of Berlin. There is just no way for Western audiences to understand this character, and Eastern regimes are flatly rejecting the movie, leaving Child 44 with no real audience.
Despite its redeeming artistic factors, it probably deserves to bomb because of its poor narrative construction. The poor impression of the film coalesces 40-50 minutes in when they get to Volsk and you realize the second act is just now underway. The film should be 30-40 minutes shorter.
Medinsky’s hyperbole becomes rather ironic, in the end — the film is a lot like the Lord of the Rings movies. As good as it truly is, at a certain point you just want it to end.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Today I learned Daredevil is actually the Dread Pirate Roberts. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.