Child 44 was a bestselling novel by Tom Rob Smith. It's described in a quote on the cover as one of the hundred best thrillers of all time, and I'm willing to believe it might be. Sadly its screen incarnation isn't going to be among the best of anything.
Child 44 it is a crime story set in Stalinist Russia — sort of a 1950s Gorky Park — and the movie adaptation has a theoretically distinguished pedigree. It stars the great Tom Hardy among other excellent actors, it's produced by Ridley Scott...
Most importantly it has a script by Richard Price, a distinguished American novelist (The Wanderers) turned screenwriter (Sea of Love). I actually used Price's book (Four Screenplays) as a text when I was teaching screenwriting. He's deft, accomplished and knowledgeable.
And the premise of Child 44 is rather brilliant. In the putative paradise of Stalin's Soviet Union, murder cannot exist — it's a disease of the decadent West. So when an honest cop has to try and stop an evil child killer, the odds are really stacked against him.
So... great set up, great cast, great screenwriter. What could go wrong? At first, nothing. The film begins strongly, setting up our hero Leo Demidov (Hardy) and his experiences in World War 2, and neatly delineating his fellow soldiers, his loyal buddy Alexei (Fares Fares) and his cowardly, evil nemesis Vasili (Joel Kinnaman — excellent in the recent Robocop remake).
We then cut to the the 1950s. Leo is now a war hero and Alexei and Vasili are fellow officers in the MGB, the state police.
And Leo is married to Raisa, played by the delightful Noomi Rapace, in a blonde wig. Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace were also a couple in the terrific recent New York crime movie The Drop.
Unfortunately, reuniting them here proves to be a mistake — because The Drop was an impressively effective film which knew exactly what it was doing. And Child 44 suffers terribly by comparison.
Because Child 44 never has a clue where it is going. It should be straightforward enough. It should tell the story of Leo's attempt to track down and stop a monstrous child murderer, struggling against the brutal and suffocating Stalinist system which hobbles him. It should be a police procedural, a mystery thriller. And occasionally — very occasionally — it is.
But for most of its running time, Child 44 can't make up its mind about what story to tell. Is it about Leo's troubled marriage (we know it's troubled because when they're banging in bed, Raisa stares unhappily off into space)? Is it about Leo's career problems? Is it a diatribe about the enormous evil of Stalin's USSR?
Sadly, yes, it is about all of those things, and the investigation of the murder is sidelined and minimised, then suddenly remembered towards the end of the film and hastily crammed into a really rushed and unsatisfying conclusion. Did you glean how the killer, who works in a factory, acquired the surgical skills which were supposed to be so critical in identifying his victims, and tracking him down? I must have missed that.
The movie reaches its climax with Leo and Vasili — and even Raisa — rolling around wrestling in the mud. Which is appropriate, because the whole movie has sort of rolled around in the mud. It's a confused mess.
I could go on about the Russian accents adopted by the British and American cast — distracting, silly and above all unnecessary (they are after all, speaking dialogue in English, not Russian, so in that sense authenticity is a horse that's already bolted).
However Child 44 has much bigger problems, all of them fatal. I'll have to read the novel to find out if some of them originated there. But if the book is as strong as it is reputed to be, then its hard to understand why a screenwriter as talented as Richard Price could have made a shambles of solid source material. Maybe the director, Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) interfered with the script. Maybe Ridley Scott interfered with the script (it's certainly been known to happen).
But for now, the only real mystery here is why Child 44 is such a misfire.
(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards.)