Child 44 first caught my attention from the side of a bus with the large names and faces of its cast, and the BBFC consumer advice piqued my interest further: “Contains strong violence, sex, strong language, child murder theme”. Being a sick bastard, this looked right up my street. The trailer increased but also slightly marred my keenness for two reasons. Firstly the faux-Russian accents, completely unnecessary in a film set in a non-English speaking country but with only non-English speaking characters. If it is really too much hassle to have Russian dialogue and English subtitles, then have these fine actors speak with English accents, as in the similarly Russian-set Enemy at the Gates. The second factor that gave me pause were the talent behind the film, as director Daniel Espinosa and DOP Oliver Wood previously collaborated on the infuriating Safe House.
Despite these reservations, Child 44 does live up to the promise of its initial publicity. I quickly got used to the accents and Espinosa and Wood largely avoid the excessive shaky cam that robbed Safe House of any tension. The unsteady aesthetic does appear, but it is used judiciously in action sequences, creating a sense of disorientation for the viewer as the characters are plunged into danger. Beyond these sequences, a mood of grim oppression pervades the film, as military police officer Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) investigates traitors against the Soviet Union and confronts his superiors over a murder case that cannot officially be murder, because “There is no crime in paradise”.
Strikingly, the murder investigation is almost secondary, pursued by Leo along with his wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) and General Mikhail Nesterov (Gary Oldman) despite opposition and indeed persecution from fellow officers Vasili (Joel Kinnaman) and Major Kuzmin (Vincent Cassel). Espinosa and screenwriter Richard Price (adapting the novel by Tom Rob Smith) craft a detailed and compelling vision of life under an oppressive regime, where the only justice and order are those approved the state. Key to this milieu is the train, which serves as a visual metaphor for the implacable state machinery and is also key to the murder case. Hope and redemption are in short supply in Child 44, making it a largely uncomfortable watch but, if you have tolerance for bleak grimness, it is still a rewarding one.