Murder in Stalin’s paradise

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Murder-in-Stalin’s-paradise

Movie review: Child 44
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Cast: Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 137 minutes
Opening: Now showing

It is the 1950s, and Stalin’s oppressive regime has created an atmosphere of fear and paranoia, and distrust looms beneath the surface of all his subjects’ thoughts and actions. MGB agent Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) has risen through the ranks following his brave actions in combat during World War II, and lives an opulent lifestyle with his wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace).

Blindly loyal to the communist regime, Leo spends his days flushing out and capturing supposed state traitors, some of whom appear to be completely innocent. After a particularly harrowing episode where one of his targets is harboured by farmers who are subsequently shot to death by a comrade, Vasili (Joel Kinnaman), Leo starts to question the morality of his actions.  

After Raisa is framed for being a state traitor working for the West, Leo is forced to come to terms with his sense of right and wrong. Being the ethical man that he is, Leo chooses to tell the truth about his wife’s innocence instead of blindly following orders to show his loyalty.

The couple is stripped of their riches and banished to live in a godforsaken outpost in the middle of nowhere with General Timur Nesterov (Gary Oldman) as Leo’s new commander. At the brink of losing his sanity, Leo starts piecing together evidence of a serial killer who is travelling around Russia, murdering young children wherever he turns up.

Although Child 44’s premise is that of a detective-style thriller, it is actually a huge melting pot of war scenes, political undertones, historical examinations of the Soviet Union’s oppressive regime and of the very human struggle between doing what is right and what is easy.

Hardy’s portrayal of Leo is exquisitely precise. No frames are wasted on meaningless expressions and actions — every nuance is etched perfectly upon his face, and the audience is completely convinced of the internal struggle that Leo faces in every scene. From the unravelling of his job to that of his marriage, we watch a war hero turned unquestioning government agent and finally into a man with convictions and powerful ethics; a man who is not afraid to stand up for what is right.

Rapace is almost equally commendable as Raisa, the meek wife who seems to be harbouring some sort of secret that we don’t get to find out until more than halfway through the movie. Is she a spy? Is she really a traitor? She really comes to her own, though, far from the “damsel in distress” that we see in the beginning of the movie. Rapace gets to kick a lot of ass… literally. Something that we do not see much of in period films.

Throughout the movie, the murders seem to take a backseat to the other plots that are focused on, and rightly so, because Child 44 is more an examination of the human spirit and political atmosphere than it is a Sherlock Holmes-type story. If there was anything that could have made the movie better, is that there should have been fewer fight scenes as there were really too many of them which took up a significant amount of screen time; and more character development.

It would have been an excellent movie if the emotional undertones that briefly shine through in the acting of Hardy and Rapace were be expanded and explored more deeply. Instead, the viewer is left to guess at what the characters are feeling and thinking through gestures and unspoken words.

Even so, Child 44 is a worthwhile watch and captures Hardy at his best. His performance is what steals the show — it is what makes the movie so compelling. Humanity is made up of mostly sheep and a very minute number of those who have the conviction and strength stand up for the truth. In Leo Demidov, we are inspired to embrace being brave in the face of fear, and to always do what is right, not what is easy.

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This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on April 17, 2015.