Child 44 Tom Hardy and company lay it on pretty thick in the steaming, overstuffed bucket of borscht that is Child 44, the big screen version of the first of Tom Rob Smith’s bestselling thrillers set in Russia. The 480-page novel, an addictive page-turner and the best of Smith’s trio, takes its plot cue from the politically explosive crimes of Andrei Chikatilo, a.k.a. “The Butcher of Rostov,” a real-life psycho who murdered and mutilated at least 52 women and children. (Chikatilo was the subject of the 1995 TV film, Citizen X).
The maddeningly flat, muddled Child 44 has a powerhouse in the ever-charismatic, brooding Hardy who, using a guttural Russian accent, plays Leo Demidov, a sort-of good guy, a war hero turned secret policeman in a brutally repressed society where Stalinists squash incriminating criminal evidence with the party line: “There can be no murder in paradise.” Demidov knows a thing or two about childhood abuse and becomes obsessed with catching the predatory killer. But only after he himself has been complicit in the extermination of entire families as enemies of the state, based on little or no evidence, of looking the other way when schoolteachers are being summarily ‘disappeared,’ and of aiding and abetting an entire population’s living in the iron-fisted grip of paranoia and terror. Evil comes home to roost when Demidov gets pressured to denounce as a spy his pregnant wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace). That’s when things ought to become exponentially more interesting but instead, the movie goes wildly off the rails chasing so many characters, subplots, and complications that you may find yourself zoning out and not giving a damn. Too bad because although there’s so much intriguing, low hanging fruit just ripe for the picking, very little of Child 44 catches fire and grabs hold. Despite strong work from Hardy, Rapace, Gary Oldman, Paddy Considine, and Joel Kinnaman, the murky script (by the great Richard Price, no less) tries to gulp down too much of the original novel and is filled with weird slang-y dialogue and tone-deaf anachronisms. The workmanlike direction of Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) doesn’t really help, either. Based on the evidence of Child 44, the odds look grim for Rob’s other two Leo Demidov novels to reach the screen anytime soon. **