19 April 2015 | CleveMan66
"Child 44" is a grim but fascinating police procedural that peaks behind the Iron Curtain into the paranoia and dysfunction of the U.S.S.R. under Stalin.
Sometimes it's tough to stand on the side of right. That's especially true when all those around you are more interested in perception than reality. And I don't just mean your family and your friends or your social circle. I'm talking about fighting against the abuses of power, corruption and cover-ups of an entire society. That's what Moscow-based secret police (MGB) agent Leo Demidov faces in the Soviet Union of the 1950s in British writer Tom Rob Smith's trilogy. The first book in that trilogy lends its title to the film "Child 44" (R, 1:37) and focuses on the real-life crimes of a Russian named Andrei Chikatilo.
Demidov is played by underrated British actor Tom Hardy. Hardy's character is a tough, but good man who wants to do what's right, but runs into a brick wall every time he tries. He's a cop in Stalin's U.S.S.R., a government that whisks away any citizen who expresses a point of view contrary to that of the authorities and holds fast to its denial of the existence of crime in their communist utopia. When the young son of fellow agent Alexi (Fares Fares) is murdered, Demidov is reminded that, according to Stalin, "murder is a capitalist disease." Or, as Vasili (Joel Kinnaman), Demidov's bitter rival within their secret police unit says, "There is no crime in paradise." As Alexi's friend and superior, Demidov is assigned to present the police report to the family. "Railway accident" is listed as the cause of death. Everyone, including Demidov, knows that this is a lie, but when the family argues with him about the official version of events all he can do is half-heartedly insist that they read the report. He pulls aside Alexi to tell him repeatedly that his son was not murdered. You can see how difficult it is for this talented investigator to deny his friend any hope of justice, but it's for Alexi's own good. Demidov knows that pursuing the matter any further would mean the end of both of their careers, or worse.
Demidov soon gets to experience an example of that "worse" for himself. When he finally takes an unyielding stand and refuses to toe the party line on another issue, he is demoted, and he and his wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace), are basically exiled to a small town that is even bleaker than Moscow was for them. When Demidov is helping investigate the murder of another young boy, he encourages his new supervisor, General Nesterov (Gary Oldman), to investigate further. Nesterov soon discovers that there have been a total of 43 similar murders in the region. "44," Demidov corrects him. "My friend's son was murdered too." Nesterov does what he can within the confines of the Soviet legal system, while Demidov and his wife go well outside normal procedures in an effort to catch the killer. Vasili gets wind of what the Demidovs are up to and tries to use this to get his former boss out of the way for good.
"Child 44" is grim, but effective. The story is a disturbing but fascinating peek into life in the U.S.S.R. late in the Stalinist era. We get a look at the state of schools, orphanages, mental hospitals and even the treatment of homosexuals, but this film is mainly about the paranoia of a broken system which victimized its own people and allowed many criminals to go unpunished. The script is strong, but the acting is even stronger. Hardy plays Demidov as a confident and dedicated public servant who is barely holding the cork in the bottle of his righteous anger. Rapace comes off as proud and strong, but with a barely concealed vulnerability just beneath the surface. Oldman has been (and remains) one of the most talented actors of his generation and, anyone who remembers him as the terrorist leader in "Air Force One" (1997) can attest that the man knows his way around a Russian accent. Basically, this is the kind of movie you want to see if you're in the mood for a serious crime thriller which has the courage to approach the sub-genre of police procedural from a little-understood place in a nearly forgotten time. "B+"