Child 44 (2015)
Editor’s Note: Child 44 is currently out in wide theatrical release.
Adapting a novel, bestselling or otherwise, into the equivalent of a two-hour film is something of an art form. Not every screenwriter can wrestle a novel’s central and secondary plots into coherent, intelligible shape; not every director can untangle a novel’s themes, and subtexts from an author’s narrative tangents, digressions, and detours to find and follow the central premise. Alternatively, both screenwriter and director may want – against all reason – to include as many subplots, details, and minutiae as possible within a two-hour running time. Whatever the rationale (if any), the result can be described as a cluttered, muddled film, better suited to a cable miniseries than a cinematic adaptation. Sadly, that’s exactly what screenwriter Richard Price (Clockers, Mad Dog and Glory, Night and the City, Sea of Love, The Color of Money) and Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House, Easy Money) delivered with their adaptation of Tom Rob Smith’s bestselling, period crime-thriller, Child 44.
In a novel with a theoretically unlimited page count, the details of Stalinist rule can be a net positive. In a film, over-emphasizing those details can slow, if not altogether stop, whatever narrative momentum a particular film has and needs.
Although primarily set in 1953 Soviet Russia, Child 44 opens two decades earlier, introducing the central character, Leo Demidov (Xavier Atkins), as a young orphan (the result of the Stalin-engineered famine in the Ukraine), escaping an orphanage for an uncertain life. A chance encounter with an officer, however, sends Demidov along a different, more fulfilling path, first as a decorated military hero (chance again steps in, giving Demidov the role of flag-raiser over the fallen Reichstag, the symbolic end of World War II in Europe), and eight years later, as a senior officer in the MGB (military state security), the precursor to the KGB, Soviet Russia’s secret police. As an MGB officer, Demidov ferrets out real and imagined enemies of the state. His elite status also entitles him to a comfortable apartment (a rarity in post-WWII Soviet Russia), and a wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace), he adores, not to mention box seats for the opera and dinner at Moscow’s finest restaurants.
Demidov begins to run afoul of his superiors, specifically Major Kuzmin (Vincent Cassel), when he hesitates to accept the official report involving the son of one of his colleagues and friends, Alexei Andreyev (Fares Fares). The official report lists “train accident” as the cause of death, but Demidov suspects murder. When another boy dies under similar circumstances, Demidov thinks a serial killer may be on the loose, but Kuzmin repeatedly stonewalls him with the “Murder doesn’t happen in paradise” line (murder is strictly a capitalist disease). That’s not what pushes Demidov out, however. Kuzmin assigns Demidov a new suspected subversive to investigate, Raisa, leaving Demidov with two choices: denounce Raisa publicly (meaning her death) or refuse to denounce Raisa and face internal exile (or worse). Demidov choses the latter, exile to a grimy, dirty factory town, Volsk, under the command of General Mikhail Nesterov (Gary Oldman).
Espinosa’s action experience probably helped him get the Child 44 gig, but Child 44 makes minimal use of those skills.
Once in Volsk, the bureaucratic obstacles confronting Demidov don’t magically disappear. Demoted to a low-level militia position, Demidov has no authority to investigate the murder of another boy (the “child 44” of the tile), forcing him to convince a naturally reluctant Nesterov to set aside his fears and doubts, specifically of his Moscow superiors and Demidov (anyone can be a spy in Stalin’s Russia), to investigate the murders. Even when Nesterov becomes Demidov’s ally, Child 44 repeatedly segues in and out of the investigation, over-emphasizing the harsh, brutal circumstances of life under Stalin at the expense of the case at the ostensible center of the narrative. In a novel with a theoretically unlimited page count, the details of Stalinist rule can be a net positive. In a film, over-emphasizing those details can slow, if not altogether stop, whatever narrative momentum a particular film has and needs.
Given the setting, time period, and premise, Espinosa and his cinematographer, Oliver Wood (the Bourne series), make the only choice seemingly available: perpetually grey skies, a muted color palette (dark browns, greens, etc.), and a deliberate, classically inspired shooting/editing style (i.e., shaky-cam-free). Espinosa’s action experience probably helped him get the Child 44 gig, but Child 44 makes minimal use of those skills. When Price’s screenplay does call on Espinosa’s action-related skills (e.g., a frenzied, frenetic fight scene between inside a crowded cattle car and a later scene in muddy ravine), they’re purposely executed to make the combatants difficult to follow (an obvious attempt to emulate the confusion and chaos of real-world fights).
Unfortunately, action scenes are the exception, not the rule, in Child 44. By the time Espinosa unveils the killer’s identity around the mid-point – an intentional nod to Michael Mann’s similar reveal in Manhunter – it’s too little, too late. The killer proves to be as one-dimensional and reductively imagined as any pulp-crime killer. In turn, that makes Child 44’s conclusion feel perfunctory, if not outright obligatory. An overlong, drawn-out denouement (presumably set-up for Smith’s second novel in an already completed trilogy) doesn’t help either, ultimately resulting in a flawed, unsatisfying effort.
An overlong, drawn-out denouement (presumably set-up for Smith’s second novel in an already completed trilogy) doesn’t help either, ultimately resulting in a flawed, unsatisfying effort.