Chasing a serial killer in 'paradise'
CHILD 44 (M18)
Drama-thriller/137 minutes/Opens today
It is 1953 in Moscow and under the oppressive, ruthless regime of Joseph Stalin, spies are everywhere and dissidents are taken away by police. Decorated officer Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) of the MGB (Ministry Of State Security) is ordered to denounce his wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace), but he is determined to protect her. He is also on the trail of a vicious serial killer, whose existence the totalitarian state refuses to acknowledge. Based on the book of the same name, the first of a trilogy by British writer Tom Rob Smith.
THE world circa 1953 in Stalinist Russia is a stifling, scary one where people branded as traitors are hunted down and shot, dissenters brutalised and citizens hauled away by state police for disagreeing with the authorities.
On a smaller, personal level, there is a dangerous duty for disgraced Soviet intelligence officer Leo Demidov (the excellent Tom Hardy from The Dark Knight Rises, 2012), with an unidentified serial killer on the loose.
Leaving numerous little boys carved up in the style of Jack the Ripper alongside railway tracks from Moscow to other cities, the mysterious killer is an unacknowledged aberration as murder is deemed a capitalist crime and swept under the carpet in a utopian society.
As the official line goes: There is no murder in paradise.
Child 44, helmed by Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House, 2012) and based on the first novel of a thriller trilogy by author Tom Rob Smith, has ambitions of becoming a film series.
It requires its audience to be extremely patient, fairly inquisitive and quite well-informed.
And, as it turns out, they will be amply rewarded with a compelling, intelligent and very different kind of film.
Even the presence of a telephone here is a dead giveaway of treachery.
This is a drama-thriller for persevering grown-ups as, unlike that other Euro thriller, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011), there is no flash, gloss or fanciful trimmings here.
Everything - from the uniforms and the buildings to the general mood - is so drab, monotonous and relentlessly depressing under the totalitarian dictatorship of Joseph Stalin that this is basically 500 Shades Of Grey.
Smith's 2008 novel was viewed by some critics as being overly ambitious in wrapping many historical facets of Stalinist rule - abject oppression, paranoia, fear, persecution, betrayal, denunciation, execution, discarded orphans, crime, homosexuality and deviant behaviour - around the heinous crimes of an actual elusive killer dubbed the Rostov Ripper, who committed more than 50 murders in the Soviet Union from 1978 to 1990.
It inevitably leads to this film being somewhat schizophrenic, as it looks like a hybrid of a political drama and procedural thriller, with essentially two movies happening at the same time.
Think Columbo (1971-2003) mixed with Doctor Zhivago (1965); that can take some gelling.
The first story centres on Demidov and his deepening crisis of conscience.
Rising from an impoverished orphan to a World War II hero, the man is a cynical beast formed wholly and solely by circumstances as he pursues suspected enemies of the state with the efficiency of a dogged but somewhat compassionate pursuer.
His compunction is to be merciful, while his subordinate Vasili Nikitin (Joel Kinnaman of RoboCop, 2014), the cardboard villain of the piece, is a sadistic maniac who has an axe to grind against Demidov due to his own humiliating act of cowardice when fighting the Nazis.
Alas, this characterisation of the baddie is so weak and predictable, it seems shipped in from another tale.
Demidov's blind obedience to higher authority places him in an unyielding, intractable dilemma.
He is ordered to expose his own "treasonous" schoolteacher-wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace from the Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, 2009), who sees her colleagues snatched away violently and determines her enforcer-husband to be a frightful monster.
To save himself, Demidov must denounce his wife, something he is reluctant to do.
There is a distinct satisfaction in watching the skilful Rapace at work here as she changes subtly from repulsion to reconciliation, finding an amenable side of her mate who refuses to give her up.
Their double act in suffering the consequences is such an emotional and homicidal bonding exercise - these two actually kill their foes together, whereupon the second chunk of Child 44 forces its way in.
Starting with the murder of a close friend's son, Demidov discovers the pattern of a serial killer and somehow, against all state-sponsored rationale, needs to probe further, to his severe detriment.
For their disobedience, the couple are banished to a harsh industrial outpost called Volsk, where the grim conditions make it their own gulag, or labour camp.
As the murders increase, so does Demidov's efforts in his uncovering of them, much to the disapproval of his new superior, an old-fashioned general (Gary Oldman) who prefers to let sleeping dogs lie for the greater good.
Now, you will ask: Why, in these most unforgiving and unfavourable conditions, would a man continue to hunt a murderer?
It makes the plot look clumsy.
"Somebody has to," he replies, as he forges on to pursue the inconvenient truth of both crime and country in the face of the false, manufactured fronts he was brought up to believe.
Hardy is terrific in his pursuit, a pit bull in the mould of Daniel Craig and Jeremy Renner, so self-contained in wariness and tenacity that he is looking to explode.
With this purpose and credo, Child 44 is a gripping film and Hardy is riveting to watch.