Child 44 review - 'this ambitious Russian epic comes a cropper'
Russia immediately before, during and after World War Two was definitely not the place to be. After Stalin had killed tens of millions of peasants with his experiments in compulsory collectivisation, Hitler and his armies marched in to unleash a titanic struggle for control of eastern Europe that would take the lives of almost 30 million Russians.
And as Child 44 illustrates, life in the postwar Soviet Union was no garden party either, and even returning war heroes were not safe from state paranoia, and the long arm of the MGB.
Daniel Espinosa's thriller is based on a trilogy of best-selling historical pot-boilers by Tom Rob Smith, and stars Tom Hardy as Leo Demidov, an MGB agent with a dark and troubled past. After his parents died during the collectivisation-induced famines that decimated the Ukraine in the 1930s, Leo is raised in a harsh and brutal state orphanage from which he eventually escapes.
During World War Two, he makes a name for himself displaying exceptional bravery in combat, and is among the first Red Army units to enter Berlin and triumphantly hoist the Soviet flag.
By the 1950s, Leo has become a high flier in the state security service and found himself a trophy wife called Raisa (Noomi Rapace) who does not seem entirely thrilled with this arrangement. Leo struts about Moscow like he owns the place, and seems comfortable with the darker side of his duties, for instance the arrest and torture of those considered politically dubious. But he gets a short sharp shock of his own when he becomes obsessed with solving the murder of a friend's child.
When a colleague's little boy is found dead by a railway line, the authorities quickly dismiss it as an accident: crime did not officially exist in the Soviet Union, and any intimations to the contrary were greeted about as enthusiastically as a blast of the Star Spangled Banner.
But Leo becomes convinced the child was sexually assaulted and strangled, and when he won't let it lie, he's targeted by his superior (Vincent Cassel) and a sneaky colleague (Joel Kinnaman) with a grudge against him.
Before you know it, he and his disgruntled missus are on their way to a tiny burg in the middle of nowhere, where he takes up a menial job in the local police force. But when dead children begin turning up out there as well, Leo convinces his kindly superior General Nesterov (Gary Oldman) to help him track down a possible serial killer.
Child 44 attempts to achieve the historical sweep of Doctor Zhivago while simultaneously giving us a forensic crime thriller, a daring endeavour that was always doomed. Fail it does, and quite spectacularly on both counts, which is frustrating because there are several good stories in there screaming to be told.
A very patchy script doesn't help, nor do the ghastly and self-conscious 'Russian' accents in which Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman and several other English cast members deliver their dodgy lines, but an even bigger problem is the fact that the director and screenwriters don't seem to have decided which story they want to focus on, and as a consequence Child 44 wanders aimlessly for long periods.
It's all a bit hammy, and in the end the whodunit element is thrown away so carelessly that even the killer looks a little embarrassed.
For all the film's grand historical pretensions, we're given little insight into the ruthless system that governed Soviet Russia, and no real sense of what life was like for the ordinary people who endured it.
Instead we get actors acting, chewing their absurd accents and shouting at one another whenever they get a chance. In fact so much spit was flying during one encounter between Messrs Hardy and Oldman that it reminded me of that skit Oldman did with Joey in Friends.