Child 44 is set in a milieu the Soviet Union during the reign of Joseph Stalin that is certainly a highly original one for a police procedural. It has one of the most complexly fascinating detective heroes since surely Xavier March in Robert Harriss Fatherland (1992) and played by Rutger Hauer in the heavily disappointing film version Fatherland (1994), which offered up a detective hero who was an SS officer. The production design, costuming and visual effects team have done a superlative job in recreating the dreariness of the era, the propaganda posters, the vehicles, the drabness of the costuming. Everything feels like you are really are back in the world and with its constant atmosphere of paranoia, distrust, informers and enforced loyalties, it rapidly becomes one of the most fascinating milieus to watch a detective story take place. Of course, much of this resembles the Arkady Renko stories by Martin Cruz Smith no relation to Tom Rob Smith a much superior series of books beginning with Gorky Park (1981) about a police detective in Soviet Moscow (albeit set some two decades later) and seven successive books that follow the hero through various outliers of the Communist State and the collapse and aftermath of the Soviet Union.
Tom Rob Smith has appropriated the story of the Ukrainian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, a former schoolteacher who murdered 52 children across the Soviet Union but whose activities remained largely undetected by his moving around the country via its train lines. The Chikatilo story has appeared on film several times before with Citizen X (1995) and Evilenko (2004). It should be noted that Child 44 is a widely fictionalised version of the Andrei Chikatilo story. Chikatilos killing spree occurred between 1978 and his arrest in 1990, the majority of which was well into the era of perestroika and where his arrest was concurrent with the fall of the Soviet Union. Smith has moved the story back twenty-five years to the height of Stalinist oppression. Moreover, where Chikatilo was in actuality arrested and then executed some years later, the film offers a very different fate. That said, the script and novel have borrowed the core of the Chikatilo case where he was allowed to go free for many years because the Soviets refused to accept the idea that murder would occur in a Communist paradise and where he was freely able to kill children up and down the train lines undetected because he was a minor party official. Tom Hardys Demidov is also loosely based on the real-life character of Moscow police inspector Mikhail Fetisov who determinedly pursued and pieced together evidence in the Chikatilo case for many years.
Child 44 has clearly been intended as a prestige production. It has an amazing cast from topliners like Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and Gary Oldman to smaller roles from Vincent Cassel, Charles Dance, the rising name of Australian actor Jason Clarke, even Irish actor Paddy Considine unrecognisable as the killer and the new Robocop (2014) Joel Kinnaman as Tom Hardys nemesis on the force. Tom Hardy is quickly establishing himself at the forefront of the top British actors in the world. Here he does some astonishing things with the role. Even if the story is slow, it takes some way into it to notice as you are captivated by the process of watching Hardy act from the studied way he moves in interrogations to his moral rightness coming out and the almost backward closetedness of his emotions.
The main problem with Child 44 is that it has a fantastically created milieu, some top drawer acting talent and is based on a fascinating true crime case but it fails to work as a particularly absorbing thriller. It is a long film, well over the two-hour mark and yet the script never keeps you pinned to it with its twists and turns or the unfolding and deduction of clues. Most of the detective work is ho-hum as a detective, Demidov less impresses with his deductive genius than merely his dogged resolve. Paddy Considines killer is a shadowy figure who never has much of a presence in the film we get to see very little of him and understand nothing of his internal drives. Certainly, the film is good at depicting its milieu, it is just that we never get much of the detective story that the film promises to be.
(Nominee for Best Actor (Tom Hardy) and Best Production Design at this sites Best of 2015 Awards).