Every writer had a different negative opinion, so one enters the cinema where Child 44 is showing with trepidation. Please believe me: it is not remotely as bad, let alone as unstructured or confusing as they say, so South African audiences, the few who support this kind of sophisticated and sombre film, will probably agree with this review.
It starts during the famine in Ukraine pre-World War II, jumps to the Great War itself and finally moves to 1953. Based on the first in a trilogy by Tom Rob Smith taking place in the brutal Soviet Union just before Joseph Stalin’s death, it chronicles the fractured life of an officer in the pro-Stalin security forces.
He is demoted when a case in which a madman murders young boys near stations is dumped on him. This pre-empts the actual Andrei Chikatilo murders later.
The Soviet government refuses to acknowledge such a terrible crime can take place in the worker’s paradise created after Word War II, so the officer is given the task of investigating the murders that “never actually happened”.
The film is 137 minutes long, but one never feels it. The story might be a bit too complicated to fit into that time, with several themes not properly explored, but that is a minor criticism. Once you get used to the director’s visual shorthand, the story falls into place and may grip you like few other films before it.
The technique the director applies to create a sense of fear, paranoia and suspicion is devastating. The smallest transgression is punished by death or inhuman torture and this fear is reflected in every actor’s eyes.
The film, which has just been banned in Russia, is also a denouncement of the brutal way the Stalin regime dehumanised the Ukraine.
Tom Hardy as the officer who investigates the child murders has never been better, while the Swedish Joel Kinnaman, as Vasili, again proves he is one of Hollywood’s most promising up-and-coming actors. Noomi Rapace is even better than in The girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels.
Child 44 is an exhausting journey, but in the end a satisfying and compelling cinematic experience.