With the Russian bear once again bearing its teeth, it’s a no-brainer to adapt Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 crime novel, a reminder of life before Perestroika and the perfect page-turner to make into an edge-of-your-seat movie thriller. But an odd thing has happened in the transition from page to screen; despite doing away with the book’s evocatively wintry settings, the story-telling has well and truly frozen over.
Prompted by the real-life exploits of Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, the “Butcher of Rostov” who murdered more than 50 women and children, Smith crafted a tale that put such a man in context – made monstrous by the Holodomor, the 1930s famine largely attributed to Stalin’s collectivization program.
The book also gave an intricate depiction of day-to-day life in a totalitarian state, in which stray words and innocent associations could get you killed, families couldn’t even trust each other, and the task of hunting a serial killer is complicated when the party line is that “there is no crime in paradise.”
Smith pulled off a rich mix of history and genre. But the film, adapted by Richard Price and directed by Daniel Espinosa (“Safe House”), faithfully attempts to repeat the trick – with far less success.
After a skip through the famine and WWII, it settles in 1953, where Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) is a loyal member of the MGB, precursor to the KGB, a decent-seeming guy who nonetheless hunts down innocent people and feeds them into a state machine where the usual ending is a bullet in the back of the head.
When Demidov falls from grace, he and his school teacher wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) are exiled from Moscow to a hellish industrial backwater in the Urals, where he’s relegated to serving with the militia and she’s consigned to cleaning toilets. At this time, Demidov has to come to terms with the shredding of his romantic idea of his marriage along with his career. A form of redemption comes via a crime spree no one else will acknowledge; Demidov teams up with his new boss, General Nesterov (Gary Oldman), to track a killer who keeps slaughtering kids on the railway tracks.
Espinosa gives this cracking yarn a stolid rendering, heavy-handed and laced with the silliness that comes with an array of unnecessary Russian accents from an international cast. Surprisingly central to the film’s failings is the performance of its star. We’re used to Tom Hardy being nothing less than compelling. Fueled by a distracting accent, his turn here has the ring of Brando on a bad day, when the great man would thoroughly enjoy himself overplaying every tic and thought process, to the point of self-parody. The result is alienating.
On the other hand, the supporting cast– Oldman, Vincent Cassel as Leo’s MGB boss, Jason Clarke as a political victim and Paddy Considine as the serial killer –are all under-used. Joel Kinnaman as Leo’s vicious, scheming fellow officer Vasili starts promisingly but the script gives him nowhere to go except stock villainy.The stand-out performer is Rapace, who movingly conveys her character’s caged unhappiness along with the gradual empowerment that comes with equality in exile with her husband. The actress is key to the most exciting action sequence, a persuasively visceral scrap as Raisa and Leo fend off some killers despatched by Vasili.
On the whole, though, this is a rare example of a book trumping cinema for action. Smith’s early scene involving a chase across – and under – the ice is far superior to the film’s fistfight in the sun; the author’s simultaneous despatch of his dual villains is at once gory and emotionally fraught. Espinosa’s version is lame. Smith loses some credibility by revealing a connection between Leo and the killer, yet while Price wisely discards that avenue he doesn’t replace it; the film’s denouement is devoid of dramatic satisfaction.
The production design is suitably atmospheric, grey, grimy and forbidding: the ill-fitting uniforms are an astutely observed contribution from ace costume designer Jenny Beavan. Espinosa replaces the usual skyscraper-sparkly aerial shots with gliding shots of low-laying industrial wasteland. And you can feel on the ground a palpable sense of the fear engendered by constant repression.
Watching “Child 44” makes me want to return to “Gorky Park,” Michael Apted’s 1983 adaptation of another Soviet-era crime novel, by Martin Cruz Smith, starring William Hurt as a Moscow cop. Equally apt at the time – Ronald Reagan made his “evil empire” speech in the same year – it also happened to be much, much more fun.