“Child 44” is a murder mystery set in the heart of Soviet Russia. It deals with heavy issues—justice in a world created by propaganda, humanity in a world of state-sponsored monstrosity. But if you go to see it expecting a dark and thought-provoking film, you may be disappointed.
Tom Hardy is Leo Demidov, a Ukranian orphaned during the Holodomor, and adopted by a Russian soldier. During World War II he was chosen to be the subject of an iconic propaganda photo, and thus became a Soviet hero. He is now a high-ranking member of the MGB (a precursor to the KGB), he lives in luxury with his beautiful wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace), and he has the respect of his comrades. He is ruthless, though he has a soft spot for children—even threatening to kill one of his men for executing a couple in front of their little daughters.
When the son of his best friend, Alexei Andreyev (Fares Fares), is brutally murdered, Leo is forced to tell Alexei that his son was killed in an accident, because “there is no murder in Paradise.” This disturbs him, but he is not willing to rebel until he is asked to name his pregnant wife, whom he knows to be innocent, as a traitor. When he refuses, he is demoted, and sent from Moscow to the middle of nowhere, where he will serve under General Mikhail Nesterov (Gary Oldman). Yet the child murderer who must be officially denied continues to kill off boys systematically, and the epicenter is near Leo’s new home.
The plot of the film lent itself very well to its central question: Is Leo Demidov a monster? As long as the focus was on telling the story, the question was explored effectively. We were presented with a man madly in love with his wife, a soldier who would pack up dolls for little orphan girls, and a loyal comrade in arms, who could turn around and have people ripped from their homes, cruelly tortured, and finally executed (after they had named some of their friends) for crimes that he well knew they had not committed. The horror inspired by the serial killer Demidov is hunting and the disdain inspired by Demidov’s weasely fellow MGB agent highlight Demidov’s manly pursuit of what he thinks is right, until one considers how like his enemies Demidov is.
Now, this may be bad criticism, but I can’t help but think of the directions in which “Child 44” could have gone to answer this question of “Is Demidov a monster?” It could have played with the possible response of forgetting Demidov’s cruelty when he was doing something epic and Jack Bauer-y for good, to point the finger at the audience, as Stanley Fish argues Milton played on his audience’s response to Satan in “Paradise Lost.” It could have explored Demidov’s motivations and the motivations of the others around him, and asked how their situations did or did not justify their actions, thus truly opening up the broader question of how a man keeps from being a monster in a monstrous society. It could have taken a page from the Oscar-winning script of “The Imitation Game” and left the audience members to make up their own minds as to who was or wasn’t a monster in the film, and thus forced them really to grapple with the question.
Instead, it put the question in one character’s mouth, and in the next scene, put the answer in the mouth of another. If a film presents you with a man as complex as Leo Demidov and then answers the question of whether or not he is a monster with a simple “yes” or “no,” it’s not doing its job very well. Unfortunately that glib treatment of Demidov was characteristic of the whole film, where social issues and historical backgrounds were addressed in irrelevant and meaningless tangents. “Child 44” started with a black screen and the words “There is no murder in Paradise.” It was chilling. I had high hopes. Then it began to pan over wintry scenery, and continued written narration about the Holodomor. “Interesting angle,” I thought. “What will they make of the fact that Leo was orphaned in the Holodomor? How will his identity as a Ukranian affect his future identity as a Soviet agent?” Nothing was made of it.
I don’t mind that the main character in this work of historical fiction was given a specific historical context. But if I am asked to read several screens’ worth of historical background at the beginning of a film, that background ought to have some bearing on the story I am about to be told. The best I could guess was that this was a shoutout to the current political situation in Russia and Ukraine. There was an episode with a homosexual character that could have been very effectively integrated into the story as a whole, given the particulars of the serial killer’s method. And then it turned into a shoutout to the current political situation in the West. To bring up complex and serious issues irrelevant to a film and then do nothing with them, is not just bad filmmaking; it’s bad politicking, too.
Still, there are good things to be said about “Child 44.” It was very exciting. The period costumes and sets were beautiful. The fear that must have accompanied every moment in a world where Big Brother could be any one of the people in the room was always made present for the audience through suspicious camera angles, or strategically placed extras. Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace both portrayed complex but taciturn characters effectively. It is rather unfortunate that with so much potential, the themes were not developed enough to make us think.
We don’t live in Paradise, any more than the Soviet Workers did. And in a godless world—and the worldview of “Child 44” was as devoid of God as that of the Communist society it portrayed—there are no neat happy answers. If the filmmakers had been more aware of this, “Child 44” might have been a thought-provoking and effective film. As it was, it was a fun, but ultimately disappointing, action flick.
Image copyright Summit Entertainment. “Child 44” is rated R for violence, some disturbing images, language, and a scene of sexuality.
Kaitlyn Elisabet Bonsell would like to take a moment to give a shout out to Arthur the Labradoodle, who, despite his shortcomings as a spiders-bane, is as excited to take walks at 1:30 AM as he would be at any more reasonable time.