"Child 44" is involving despite itself. At times awkward and self-conscious, this despairing police tale starring Tom Hardy and set in the USSR during the last days of dictator Josef Stalin manages to muster enough punch to hold our interest.
As readers of literary thrillers will remember, "Child 44" is based on a 2008 novel by Tom Rob Smith that sold 1.5 million copies and was potent enough to be long-listed for the Booker Prize. Not all the factors that made the book a success have translated to the film intact, but a key one has, and it's that singular setting.
As directed by Daniel Espinosa, "Child 44" takes us back to the drab grimness of the Soviet Union in 1953. Shot in the Czech Republic by Oliver Wood, with Jan Roelfs doing the production design, the film not only re-creates dreary physical locations but also exposes the rotten, harrowing nature of a paranoid political system that viewed everyone as a potential traitor suitable for exile or execution.
Even worse for those with a police function and a sense of justice, the Soviet system apparently had no interest in certain types of crime. Because Stalin decreed that murder was a disease of capitalism that, by definition, could not be present in a Soviet society ("There is no murder in paradise" is a line heard several times), serial killers could operate with impunity. Their nefarious deeds would not be investigated as such because officially they did not exist.
(Moscow has not embraced the film, blocking its release over what the minister of culture calls its depiction of Russians as "physically and morally defective sub-humans.")
The film's superb setup would make a great film for someone like Ridley Scott of "American Gangster." Scott did buy the rights but never got around to directing it, and the project ended up with Espinosa, who did the crack "Snabba Cash" (Easy Money) in his native Sweden as well as the Denzel Washington-starring "Safe House."
A gifted director especially expert in run-and-gun action movies, Espinosa offers a few strong action sequences, but he's become bogged down in this film's extensive narrative and larger societal themes. As a result, "Child 44" sometimes plays like a schizophrenic cross between "Dr. Zhivago" and "The Silence of the Lambs," which is not necessarily a good thing.
The work of screenwriter Richard Price is similarly a mixed bag. Lines such as "She didn't keep her ... opinion to herself" have given "Child 44" more of a contemporary vibe than it should have, and key elements of the plot have been changed. But Price sees to it that the film's parallel story lines effectively reinforce each other.
"Child 44" begins with a flashback to the horrors of the starvation-plagued Ukraine of 1933, and we see a small boy escape from an orphanage. He is adopted by a Soviet soldier and given a new name: Leo Demidov.
Cut to Berlin, 1945. Leo ends up posing as a victorious Red Army fighter waving a flag atop the Reichstag (a tribute to the celebrated photo by Yevgeny Khaldei) and becoming an instant national hero and emblem of Soviet courage.
Now it is 1953, and Leo (Tom Hardy) lives in Moscow, where he's an officer of the MGB, the state's internal police, surrounded by the same comrades who fought with him in the war, including loyal Alexei (Fares Fares) and the completely psycho Vasili ("The Killing's" Joel Kinnaman, who broke through in "Snabba Cash"), who would just as soon shoot you as look at you.
The Soviet system has been good to Leo, and he believes in it completely. So much so that he can't see what would be obvious to a child: Raisa (Noomi Rapace), the wife he adores, is bored with their marriage and with him.
Leo has a job only a true believer could hold. He has to arrest an ever-growing list of people considered disloyal and ignore the fact that in a society where coerced confessions are standard issue, accusations alone are as good as death sentences.
Suddenly, however, all the flaws of the Soviet system get personal for Leo in a pair of interlocking ways that totally whipsaw him.
First, his beloved Raisa is accused of treason, and Leo's devious superior, Maj. Kuzmin (Vincent Cassel), assigns the investigation to him. Almost simultaneously, Leo becomes convinced that a serial killer (based on the real-life Andrei Chikatilo, a.k.a. "The Butcher of Rostov") is at work torturing and killing small boys.
It would be nice to report that Hardy, one of England's top actors ("Locke," the forthcoming "Mad Max: Fury Road") rises to the occasion as a man who gets so obsessed with justice he puts his life and career in jeopardy, but that is not the case.
Hardy pushes too hard in this part, overdoing both the Russian accent and the emotions. Fortunately, costars such as the reliable Gary Oldman, as a provincial official who is one of Leo's few allies, are more discreet and more effective.
Problematic but involving, "Child 44" offers a picture of what individuals did to survive in a world turned upside down. The film's singular premise allows it to survive its various shortcomings, but it is a near-thing.
MPAA rating: R, for violence, some disturbing images, language, a scene of sexuality
Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes
Playing: In general release