Adapted from the first novel of Tom Rob Smith’s award-winning trilogy, Child 44 is a dense crime thriller steeped in the suspicion and paranoia of the Stalin-era Soviet Union.
Scriptwriter Richard Price faces an uphill battle – one he doesn’t always win – to condense more than 400 pages of political intrigue and sinewy subplots into a free-flowing narrative that won’t distract multiplex audiences from their popcorn.
He succeeds in fits and spurts, aided by Swedish director Daniel Espinosa, who energised the Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House, and performs some of the same magic here in propulsive action sequences.
Espinosa flexes his muscles in compelling early scenes, recreating a key moment in the Battle of Berlin in 1945, when Soviets raised their flag over the Reichstag building.
War-hardened soldier Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) is the man wielding the standard, cheered on by best friend Alexei Andreyev (Fares Fares), while cowardly comrade Vasili Nikitin (Joel Kinnaman) watches enviously from the sidelines.
Fast-forward eight years and these three men are working side by side as Moscow’s secret police under the aegis of Major Kuzmin (Vincent Cassel).
Some of the cast are more comfortable than others with the thick Russian accents, including a couple of noticeable wobbles
Alexei’s young son dies on the train tracks in suspicious circumstances and the grieving father becomes convinced that a murderer is on the loose.
When Leo investigates, Kuzmin shoots him down: ‘Stalin tells us murder is strictly a capitalist disease.’
Soon after, Leo’s wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) is branded a traitor but the policeman refuses to disown her.
‘You should have given me up – that’s what wives are for,’ she coldly informs him, before they are banished to the bleak industrial town of Voualsk.
Leo is determined to unmask the boy’s murderer and joins forces with local lawmaker General Nesterov (Gary Oldman) to disprove Stalin’s assertion that there can be no murder in paradise.
Meanwhile, the unlikely culprit, a factory worker called Vladimir (Paddy Considine), hunts more unsuspecting victims with impunity.
Based on the real life case of Andrei Chikatilo, the so-called Butcher of Rostov, who was sentenced to death for 52 murders, Child 44 is a slow burn that gets bogged down in exposition.
Some of the cast are more comfortable than others with the thick Russian accents, including a couple of noticeable wobbles.
Hardy is a typically brooding and emotionally conflicted central figure, who is forced to address his own transgressions when murderer Vladimir scolds: ‘Hero, monster – we are both killers, you and I.’
The bitter rivalry with Kinnaman’s backstabbing compatriot is sketched in broad strokes while Rapace’s love interest feels slightly undernourished as well.
Espinosa sustains tension, despite occasional dramatic detours that prolong the running time to a testing 137 minutes.