I finally got around to watching the poorly received 2015 drama thriller from director Daniel Espinosa (“Safe House”, “Outside Love”) called “Child 44”. The movie opened earlier this year to generally bad reviews and apparently made around US$3 million at the box office, against a US$50 million budget.
The film is based on the successful 2008 novel, also titled “Child 44” by English author Tom Rob Smith, which was the first book in a trilogy based in and around Soviet Russia and featuring the lead character Leo Demidov.
The novel was inspired by the real life case of serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who was convicted of the murder of 52 women and children in the Soviet Union between 1978 and 1990.
The movie starts with the text “There is no murder in paradise” and then informs the viewer that during the 1932/33 Holodomor imposed by the Stalin regime in Ukraine approximately 25,000 people died of starvation each day and left millions of orphaned children.
We first meet Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy – “The Drop”, “Locke”) as a young boy running away from the orphanage that he’s been put in and briefly see him join up with the armed forces and become regarded as a war hero in World War II before we find him in Moscow in the early 1950s, where he has become a respected agent within the MGB (the Ministry of State Security – later to become the KGB).
The young son of his MGB partner Alexei Andreyev (Fares Fares – “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Easy Money”) is found dead by the railway tracks, having been stripped naked, drowned and had some organs removed. However, as we are reminded a few times during the film, there can be no murder in the Soviets’ perfect society and the officially recorded version has the boy being found fully clothed after being hit and killed by a train.
Leo’s boss, Major Kuzmin (Vincent Cassel – “Irreversible”, “Eastern Promises”), orders him to deliver the official verdict to Alexei and his family. Although he does so, Leo is privately unconvinced and requests a second medical examination of the child’s body and learns the truth.
Meanwhile, Leo and his team – including Vasili Nikitin (Joel Kinnaman – “Run All Night”, “RoboCop”) – investigate a veterinary surgeon who has been reported and being disloyal to the state.
The vet, Anatoly Tarasovich Brodsky (Jason Clarke – “Swerve”, “Terminator Genisys”), is tracked down and captured – though an incident between Leo and Vasili during the operation illustrates the bad blood that exists between the pair.
Although Brodsky proclaims his innocence, following extensive interrogation he produces a list of names of others disloyal to the state. Major Kuzmin gives Leo one of the names to investigate, as he values Leo’s abilities, but Leo discovers that he now has to investigate his own wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace – “Dead Man Down”, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”).
Placed in this impossible position, Leo refuses to denounce his wife and so the couple are shipped off to the small town of Volsk around six hundred miles south-east of Moscow, but not before Leo learns of another young boy’s body being found in circumstances with remarkable similarities to Alexei’s son.
Once in Volsk, Leo has to work in much reduced rank within the militia, reporting to General Mikhail Nesterov (Gary Oldman – “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, “JFK”), while teacher Raisa now finds herself reduced to cleaning at the local school.
When another dead child turns up, this time close to the railway tracks in Volsk, Leo persuades a reluctant General Nesterov to find details of other similar deaths. The results paint a picture of more than forty similarly killed children throughout the Soviet republic, with the highest concentration of deaths being around the town of Rostov, a hundred or so miles north-east of Moscow.
Leo is determined to track down the killer, and it’s no spoiler to reveal that this turns out to be Vladimir Malevich (Paddy Considine – “Dead Man’s Shoes”, “Pride”). However, the Moscow authorities are not on his side and Vasili is determined to get rid of Leo and keep the killings a secret…
Now, I haven’t read the source novel so I cannot comment on the film’s accuracy in relation to it, and I must confess to having little historical knowledge when it comes to the old Soviet Union. However, if nothing else this film has persuaded me to track down Smith’s trilogy and to read up on Russian history.
Within the overall serial killer hunt, the film touches on subjects including the secret police operations, the treatment of homosexuals, the condition of orphanages and the general paranoia of the era. How true to life these depictions are I don’t know, but it certainly paints a very grim view of life in Soviet Russia in the 1950s.
In fact the movie was withdrawn from cinemas in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan following statement from the Russian Ministry of Culture and the distributor Central Partnership complaining of “distortion of historical facts, peculiar treatment of events before, during and after the Great Patriotic War and images and characters of Soviet people of that era”.
Personally, despite the negative reviews, I found the film to be most engaging and quite thought-provoking too. Hardy is an actor who impresses whenever I have seen his work and is certainly very effective in this movie.
Of the supporting cast, Kinnaman is suitably unlikeable as the amoral Vasili and Rapace’s portrayal of Leo’s reluctant wife is on the money too.
Leaving all the historical and political accuracy (or otherwise) to one side this is still a great mystery thriller, but add in those ingredients too and I reckon this is a great film. Well worth watching…