REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
The film, “Child 44,” starts in the Ukraine prior to World War II. It depicts a far bleaker situation than the one currently prevailing in the Ukraine. As Hitler was on the cusp of installing a Nazi government in Germany, another megalomaniacal despot, Joseph Stalin reduced the Ukraine to a vassal republic of the U.S.S.R.
An opening title card informs the viewer about Holodor, a tragic episode in the history of the Ukraine. Also known as “extermination by starvation,” the massive famine struck the country during 1932 and 1933. It is estimated that between 2.5 and 7.5 million ethnic Ukrainians died from starvation during those years. Countless children were placed in state-run orphanages. Many scholars contend that Holodor was an intentional campaign, engineered by Stalin, to extinguish the Ukrainian independence movement as a threat to Soviet hegemony.
In an early scene, a young boy (Xavier Atkins) escapes a Ukrainian orphanage. He seeks refuge in the forest amidst a bunch of homeless men. When one of them asks the lad what his name is, he replies, “I don’t want it anymore.” It conveys a deep-seated despair that pervades the ensuing film.
The escapee is redubbed, “Leo Demidov.” During World War II, Leo becomes an inconsequential infantryman in the Red Army. He is present as the U.S.S.R. forces invade Berlin. Leo is chosen at random to be photographed raising the U.S.S.R. hammer and sickle flag at a monument outside the Reichstag.
The photograph is widely published accompanied by banner headlines that proclaim Leo as a national war hero. He receives the prestigious Gold Star, the highest award in the U.S.S.R.
Leo’s newfound status enables him to be appointed as an officer in Stalin’s secret police, the MGB (a precursor of the KGB). His job description involves arresting suspected dissidents. It becomes apparent that it doesn’t take much for the MGB to brand someone as a traitor to the state.
Leo and his men track down a veterinarian, Anatoly Brodsky (Jason Clarke), to a remote farmhouse. As the MGB troops approach, Anatoly flees the farmhouse with Leo in hot pursuit.
When Leo catches Anatoly, the latter pleads for the MGB agent to kill him. However, Leo recognizes that Anatoly is more valuable as an asset if he remains alive. That way, he can become a potential informant to identify other supposed dissidents. When Leo demurs, Anatoly grabs the agent’s knife from its scabbard and stabs himself in the abdomen. However, Leo grabs the knife back and the self-wounding proves to be non-fatal.
Leo returns to the farmhouse just as his assistant, Vasili (Joel Kinnaman), has executed a mother and father, who live there. He is about kill their two children, but Leo intervenes and saves them. Outraged by the gratuitous carnage, Leo slugs his officer and berates him in front of their underlings. He has made an enemy for life.
Striking a fellow officer is a serious offense. However, it is forgiven by Leo’s commanding officer, Major Kuzmin (Vincent Cassel from “Black Swan,” “Trance”). After all, Leo has apprehended Anatoly Brodsky alive.
The film introduces a seemingly separate plot development. The son of Alexei Andreyev (Fares Fares) has been found dead, stripped naked and full of knife wounds placed with surgical expertise. However, the coroner declares that boy dies as a result of being struck by a train. After all, Stalin has decreed that murder is a capitalist disease. There is no such thing as murder in a worker’s paradise.
Leo is tasked with delivering the bogus autopsy report to Alexei, who had been a wartime colleague of his. The grieving parents express understandable outrage. How could a train have stripped their son of his clothes and left him repeatedly stabbed?
Meanwhile, Leo is faced with another moral dilemma. Under torture, Anatoly Brodsky has named Leo’s beloved wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace), as a dissident. In view of Leo’s history as a war hero and his skill as a KGB officer, Major Kuzmin offers him an option. All Leo has to do is denounce Raisa and he will be forgiven for his association with an enemy of the state.
How can Leo possibly denounce the wife he adores? When Leo refuses, he is stripped of his rank as a KGB officer. He is demoted to being a generic member of the militia in Rostov, a remote backwater outpost in the Ukraine. Raisa, who had been a schoolteacher, learns that she will be a lowly janitor at a local school.
Leo’s new commanding officer, General Mikhail Nesterov (Gary Oldman), General Nesterov wonders why someone of Leo’s impressive background would be demoted. He suspects that Leo is still a member of the MGB sent to spy on him. General Nesterov warns Leo that if a bad report is submitted, he will personally kill his new subordinate.
A series of additional child murders take place. All of them are marked by the same distinctive modus operandi as the murder of Vasili’s son. Officials Moscow have decided to studiously ignore the fact that a serial killer preying on young boys of the Ukraine. However, Leo’s conscience compels him to pursue the murderer.
How does an idealist survive within a Society, which is dominated by institutionalized hypocrisy? Tom Hardy is superb, delivering a nuanced performance as a man who must wrestle with the issue. He adroitly conveys his internal struggles without excessive expository dialogue. Once again, Hardy demonstrates that his kinesthetic skills are well-suited for action scenes. In conjunction with his breakthrough role in “Bronson,” and subsequent roles in “Locke” and “The Drop,” it is now evident that Hardy is a top-rate actor.
Hardy is well supported by his fellow thespians. After portraying Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Noomi Rapace played opposite Hardy in, “The Drop.” Here, they movingly capture the struggles of a couple, as they are being systematically persecuted by the state. Vincent Casell. The French actor Vincent Casell, exudes a sense of cynical resignation.
The film derives from the first installment of a trilogy by Tom Rob Smith. The book was inspired by the real life case of Andrei Chikatilo, who was convicted of sexually assaulting, murdering, and mutilating 52 women and children. It is adroitly adapted by Richard Price, whose prior work included the Oscar nominated screenplay for “The Color of Money” as well as the adaptation of his own novel, “Clockers.” Following up on his former works, “Easy Money” (which starred Joel Kinnaman) and “Safe House,” Chilean-Swedish director, Daniel Espinosa, does a capable job of helming the film.
“Child 44” evokes a knowing sense of time and place. It captures the human despair that prevails under totalitarian government. The film challenges the notion that moral decisions are always well-defined and easy to make.
Some viewers will struggle to follow the convoluted plotline and interpersonal dynamics. Others will find the pacing to be frustratingly erratic and the philosophical digressions ill-suited for a film that has all the trappings of a police detective procedural.
However, courtesy of another exceptional performance by Tom Hardy and other compelling elements, “Child 44” emerges as a contemplative thriller.
*** R (for violence, some disturbing images, language and a scene of sexuality) 137 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.