Long before World War II, Josef Stalin orchestrated the starvation of millions of Ukrainians in the man-made famine known as the Holodomor. In popular culture, though, the crimes of Nazi Germany have inspired countless books, movies and TV dramas, while the sins of the U.S.S.R. in Stalin’s 28-year reign of terror get little attention. Not one in a hundred Americans for whom the word Holocaust stirs a gut chill, as it must, have even heard of the Holodomor, Ukraine’s “secret Holocaust.”
Give credit then to Child 44, the new movie made from the first of Tom Rob Smith’s trilogy of novels about Soviet-era detective Leo Davidov; it actually spends its first few minutes in 1933 Ukraine during Stalin’s man-made famine. Davidov is a boy, orphaned and starving, who gets his first glimpse of a killer he will confront 20 years later in the Russian woods outside Rostov. It is a depiction of how the dreadful events of youth can inform two lives: one heroic, the other sinister.
Child 44, from the Swedish director Daniel Espinosa and the American screenwriter Richard Price, is also a reminder of why we don’t see more English-language movies set in the old U.S.S.R. Shot in the Czech Republic, the film is brooding, dramatically impoverished and, at 2hr.14min., a significant slog. An attractive cast, led by Tom Hardy as Leo, trudges through its serial-killer scenario with little energy or purpose. And though most of the actors are either native English-speakers or — like Noomi Rapace, the Swedish star of the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo films — perfectly adept in English as a second language, everyone speaks with a heavy Russian accent. This foolish trope ups the viewers’ degree of difficulty in following the story and reduces the level of their commitment.
In an Iwo Jima moment in Berlin 1945, Leo raises the red flag over the defeated Reichstag. Eight years later he is an honored member of the military police, serving in a unit with his best friend Alexei (Fares Fares) and the cowardly, sadistic Vasili (Joel Kinnaman). Leo gets sidetracked into pursuing what he believes is the murder of Alexei’s young son. That’s good for Leo’s conscience, bad for his career. To curb Leo’s subversive initiative, his boss, Major Kuzmin (Vincent Cassel), orders him to investigate a suspected traitor: his wife Raisa (Rapace).
When Leo defends Raisa, the two are exiled to distant Volsk, where she mops floors and he is demoted to the role of minor functionary under the suspicious eye of General Nesterov (Gary Oldman). The discovery of another boy killed in similar circumstances — sexually scarred and “drowned” miles from any river — prods Leo to find a man who may be the murderer of 44 children.
That is Vladimir Malevich (Paddy Considine), modeled on the real-life Butcher of Rostov, Andrei Chikatilo, who was sentenced to death in 1992 for 52 murders of young boys and girls between 1978 and 1990. The Child 44 book and movie transplant the case to the early postwar era, when the Party line insisted that crime was purely a capitalist disease — that, as the film mentions three or four times, “There’s no murder in Paradise.” You will also be intrigued by the assertion that some Russians in World War II were captured by the Nazis and that “German soldiers gave them pills that made them addicted to the blood of children.” No wonder the Child 44 killer is named Vladimir: he took medication to become the legendary Vlad the Impaler — Dracula as pedophile.
It’s all very evocative and illuminating. Too bad the filmmakers botched the job of turning Smith’s teeming tale into a coherent movie with an independent life. Price, a vintage specialist in the overlapping world of New York cops and criminals (The Wanderers, Sea of Love, Night and the City, Clockers), sufficiently synopsizes the plot but provides little juice to the dialogue other than the occasional F-bomb.
Espinosa, who directed Kinnaman in the first film of the Swedish-language Easy Money trilogy and emigrated suavely into the Hollywood orbit with the Denzel Washington CIA thriller Safe House, seems to be aiming for an art-film epic here in what we may call the classic Soviet style. That means dim, dark, depressing and lonnng. Some two-hour-plus movies are compact enough to resist cutting; Child 44 is a work that spectators could trim as they watch it, scene by scene. So extended are the pauses between sentences, so torpid the pace even of the chase scenes. You end up in the role of a film editor handed the very rough cut of what could be a decent movie.
In the spirit of detente, let’s acknowledge few good things. Actresses in minor roles — Agnieszka Grochowska as Alexei’s wife and Barbara Lukesová as a mother about to be killed by the swinish Vasili — get brief opportunities to shine. Jason Clarke brings emotional heft to another small role, as a treason suspect Leo is sent to hunt down. Cinematographer Oliver Wood gives Rapace’s high cheekbones a lovely, Rembrandty glow amid the dominant murk. A subplot involving Raisa and her Moscow friend Ivan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) has a tart, poignant payoff. A fight in a train’s cattle car, between Leo and the thugs sent to kill him, is vigorously staged. And we can’t really fault Hardy, the one-time Bane and future Mad Max; he makes for a complex, quietly stalwart hero, whatever his cockamolotov accent.
But Espinosa botches the climax, with four of the principles rolling in the Rostov mud, and the bad guys given more strength and fighting skills than is remotely plausible. There are also more dramatic codas than in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, without all the nifty stuff that preceded it in the Peter Jackson movies.
The preceding two hours of Child 44 are drudge work, as if to prove that visiting the Soviet Union at the exhausted end of the Stalin era is no more exciting than living there.