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Child 44
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by Jay Seaver

"The idea of a Soviet search for a serial killer deserves stronger."
3 stars

The name of "Child 44" and the trailer that emphasizes the serial-killer aspects of the movie don't do it any favors, but they don't actually misrepresent it either. That's probably the film's main problem - the intention of using a crime story to get at something else is a good and noble one, but that crime story needs to be more interesting and the other half needs to be more interesting sooner.

The common thread is Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy); orphaned as a child by the Ukrainian famine in 1933, he found a home in the army and raised the Soviet flag over Berlin in 1945. By 1953, he is married to the lovely Raisa (Noomi Rapace) and hunting down traitors for the MGB with old army comrades Alexei (Fares Fares) and Vasili (Joel Kinnaman). Alexei's son being murdered but the official finding being a tragic accident - there are no murders in the workers' paradise - is not what gets Leo demoted and exiled to the backwater of Volsk, but once there, he discovers a similar crime. Hopefully General Mikhail Nesterov (Gary Oldman), the head of the local militia, will be more willing to investigate than the brass back in Moscow was.

Child 44 does not exactly start slow, but it does spend enough time establishing Leo as the relatively humane member of the secret police (along with other things) that the audience can find themselves in the uncomfortable position of becoming impatient for the first kid to die. Unfortunately, that half of the film never really takes off; though early scenes are framed so as to imply that the killer's identity is an important mystery, what's actually going on is only vaguely sketched out, and Paddy Considine is wasted in his too-small role.

On the other side, it's a slow build, but it at least gets somewhere interesting. What initially seems like the sort of background that could be seen as artificially softening Leo plays out in more intriguing fashion; as the film goes on, it becomes a sort of tragedy that Leo would, all things being equal, probably prefer to be a cop than anything else, but the society he's in perverts that job into a means of controlling the citizenry while actually trying to solve a crime - even one unconnected to politics - will make him an outlaw. It's a similarly long, bumpy road to follow what's going on between Leo and Raisa, though it becomes worthwhile to get an intimate look at just how being adjacent to the sort of work he does can affect those involved.

It also puts the focus on Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace, which is always welcome. Though there's something a bit grandiose about the accent Hardy puts on as Leo, he manages to build both a fierceness and sincerity around a character who logically can't be as naive as he sometimes seems. Rapace has to work with a lighter touch, but she manages it, creating a nervous but strong and pragmatic complement. None of the rest of the cast has roles of the same quality; Joel Kinnaman makes an able thug while Fares Fares is warm, and Gary Oldman certainly seems to deserve a bit more than he's given here.

They're plopped in the middle of an impressive-looking film; from the battle scene in Berlin to Moscow to Volsk, the film is meticulously constructed to the last detail. It's not a particularly action-packed film, but when that is called for, Daniel Espinosa presents it in clear, exciting fashion, even if eventually literally dragging the characters into a patch of mud is a bit on the nose. The whole thing does feel like it could pick up the pace somewhat - though there are impressive parts, it takes a while to get going and the investigation itself is never as fascinating as one hopes.

Just cutting a half hour out of a long movie wouldn't do it; "Child 44" needs more. As a crime story, it leans too heavily on being in an unusual setting without making use of it; and while it's better as a story of trying to have integrity in a corrupt system, there's room for improvement there, too. Enough elements of both are done well to make the movie interesting, but probably not enough to pique much interest in the detective series that the end goes out of its way to set up.

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originally posted: 04/21/15 14:50:22
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  17-Apr-2015 (R)

  17-Apr-2015 (15)


Directed by
  Daniel Espinosa

Written by
  Richard Price

  Tom Hardy
  Joel Kinnaman
  Gary Oldman
  Jason Clarke
  Noomi Rapace
  Vincent Cassel

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