Director: Daniel Espinosa
Cast: Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman and Vincent Cassel
Running Time: 137 minutes
Release Date: April 17th
We can almost hear the conversation between producer Ridley Scott and director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) right now:
Ridley: “Want to direct the adaptation Child 44?”
Daniel: “Sure. What’s it about?”
Ridley: “It’s kind of like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy meets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
Daniel: “Well, that’ll make casting it easy!”
So we have high ranking solider Leo Demidov (Hardy) finding spies in 1950s Moscow, who then finds out that his own wife Raisa (Rapace) has been fingered as a potential suspect. Of course in Mother Russia, “potential suspect” actually means “confirmed criminal”, but because Leo won’t denounce his wife, he’s given a demotion and they’re sent off to the outskirts of the nation. Now under the command of General Nesterov (Oldman), he discovers evidence that someone has been murdering young boys all over the country. However, under Stalin’s rule, murder does not and can not exist in their communist paradise, and when Leo’s former commander Major Kuzmin (Cassel) gets word of his investigations, he sends new upstart Vasili (Kinnaman) to stop him and cover it up.
Given the wealth of talent in front of the camera and the bestselling and critically-acclaimed novel it’s based on, Child 44 really feels like it should have been a home-run, but under Espinosa’s impatient eye, everything feels oddly imbalanced. The screenplay by Richard Price (a regular writer on The Wire) focuses too much on all the wrong things, devoting attention to minutiae (a blood covered book becomes a befuddlingly important clue) and by-passing important discussion points, like why exactly Stalin held this particular stance on murder. The set-up for the murderer’s identity is all cloak and dagger, until the script decides it’s not anymore, leading to a bizarre case of mid-story anti-climax. Entire sections of Leo’s backstory are zipped past, but come the end of the movie they suddenly become very pertinent, but without the requisite early groundwork, the pay-off is meaningless. Espinosa seems to sense this, only fully coming to life during a train-set fist-fight, and the unfortunate finale which sees a case of national security and political skulduggery solved by two dudes scrapping in a puddle of mud.
It’s up to the actors to save the day, delivering some fine performances in their interestingly, densely layered characters – particularly Rapace, who rises to the challenge of a particularly nuanced role – even if Hardy and Oldman sometimes let slip their native accent, and if even the likes of Cassel, Jason Clarke and Charles Dance are gifted with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them amounts of screentime. You can’t help but wonder what might have been had this been turned into a HBO mini-series, given more room to breathe and tell the story that is suffocated within the relatively tight 137 minute runtime.
One last thing: if you’re telling a story set in Russia, and you want everyone speaking English but in a Russian accent, don’t then sometimes have them proclaim “Nastrovia!” in celebration and positively answering questions with “Da!”. Seriously, what’s that about?