You could be forgiven for thinking that Child 44, directed by Daniel Espinosa and based on the novel of the same name by Tom Rob Smith, is a run-of-the-mill mystery/detective movie, only set in Soviet Russia. Based on the talent connected to the project you could also be forgiven for thinking that it’s a good film. Unfortunately, neither is true. It’s not the fault of the talent connected to the project, who do well with what they’re given, but rather the fault of the project itself. To put it simply, it’s too complicated thematically for its own good, because Child 44 isn’t the run-of-the-mill-detective story, it’s an examination of the Soviet system and the dehumanisation that comes from a totalitarian regime masquerading as a detective story. That might work for a novel, but for a film (at least this one) it doesn’t. And that’s terrible.
The protagonist, Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), is an officer of the MGB, and it’s not until after he’s been declared persona non-grata, made exile and forced to go against those he cared about the most does he begin to question the system. Not rebel against, question. Leo isn’t unwantedly cruel, though; when tracking a veterinarian, Leo does punish the his fellow MGB officer, Vasily Nikitin (Joel Kinnamon) for executing a pair of farmers in front of their daughters, so there is that. I mean, he does an evil job, but at least Leo isn’t too evil himself, so we are supposed to like him, but it’s difficult to reconcile the fact that we’re supposed to like Demidov whilst also showing that he supports a regime that is shown to be destructive and dehumanising.
In a situation like that who is the audience to emphasise with?
I have no idea. Honestly, I don’t. When watching Child 44 I wanted the murderer to get caught, but I was also very much aware that he was created by the very system that’s chasing him, and I couldn’t emphasize with that system because… Well, it’s the Stalin era Soviet Union. In fact, I couldn’t emphasize with any of the characters – not Leo, not Raisa Demidova (Noomi Rapace), not General Mesterov (Gary Oldman). As a viewer, that’s frustrating, but not as frustrating as the thick Russian accent that Daniel Espinosa had the cast adopt. Why? I have no idea. Perhaps it was thought that by doing so they could better unify the cast and to remind people that this is definitely set in Soviet Russia, as if such a constant reminder was even necessary, or perhaps they wanted to avoid a Hunt for Red October (1990) type situation. Maybe they just didn’t want to pull a Valkyrie (2008) and be accused of just not caring. Whatever the reason why, ultimately the actors – many of them known to be exceedingly talented from other roles – seem wasted. Honestly, sometimes I felt like I was watching a Yakov Smirnoff skit playing in front of me.
In terms of cinematography and direction, Child 44 is nothing groundbreaking. It’s dark and gritty, sure, but not stylish. There’s nothing beautiful here to look at and comment upon – even scenes set in the Russian countryside have had a grey and dull filter put to them. On the one hand, having the scenes set in Moscow and industrial spaces filmed through a grey filter makes sense and helps to reinforce the depressing nature of the setting but its overwhelming use – particularly in scenes set in the Russian countryside – just “drowns” out the film in grittiness. If I’m going to be honest, a lot of the time watching this film felt like looking at a dusty piece of metal.
You could argue that I’m being too harsh, that it’s just a detective film, but – and I can’t stress this enough – it’s not. It’s clear that the detective plot merely exists to facilitate a criticism of the Soviet Union. With that in mind, you could also say that a film such as this requires a more nuanced reading of morality and that I’m not analysing the film closely enough, but honestly, it’s not that kind of film, either. It sits awkwardly on the border between the two extremes and fails to satisfy either. But for all its faults I have to give Child 44 praise for being the first movie I’ve ever seen that suffers from being both overcomplicated and too simple.
A criticism of the Soviet System of dehumanisation is a good idea for a film; if handled well, it can be thoughtful, insightful, and certainly heart breaking. Likewise, a detective story set in Soviet Russia could be very interesting and provide an interesting look into events and situations rarely discussed in mass media. In either one of these two narratives there’s a lot of scope for story development, and I’d argue that on paper the two narrative strands (social criticism and detective story) should work together, but unfortunately in the way in which Daniel Espinosa has directed Smith’s novel it just doesn’t work. And that’s a shame because the basic premise is there and there was some real talent attached to this film. It’s just a shame that the premise and the talent was wasted here.
An interesting experiment, but ultimately disappointing.