Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Screenplay by Richard Price, adapted from the novel by Tom Rob Smith
In my “Epilogue” post last year, I said that I didn’t want to keep reviewing Richard Price’s work contemporaneously as it was released because “I want to be able to enjoy it without having to hop online immediately afterwards to parse out how good of a job it’s doing holding up his legacy.” Part of my concern was that, since this is primarily a tribute site, I didn’t want to put myself in the position of potentially criticizing Price’s work while it was still competing for attention in the cultural marketplace. So, although I didn’t commit to or announce this policy, I figured I might review each new work a year after it had been released; at that point its critical and commercial fate would be more or less sealed, and I’d also have a broader perspective from which to make my evaluation.
As it turned out, the film Child 44, adapted for the screen by Price from the novel by Tom Rob Smith (and released exactly one year ago, on April 17, 2015), seemed to be exactly the sort of project my waiting period idea had anticipated: It opened to generally negative reviews, earning a mere 26% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Even Price himself seemed to join in with its detractors in a tweet I can’t believe he never deleted:
So is it really that bad? I don’t think so, but unfortunately I wouldn’t really recommend it either.
The movie was at a disadvantage with me from jump, since I had read and enjoyed the original novel, so any screen adaptation ran the risk of seeming like a rushed recap of stuff I had already experienced. And the narrative is indeed quite faithful to the source material: Both book and film follow Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy in the movie), a secret police agent in Stalinist Russia who winds up on the trail of a serial child murderer. This pursuit puts him and his wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) at odds with the powers that be, who just want to cover the whole thing up in order to reinforce Stalin’s assertion that there are no murders in a communist “paradise” because that crime is strictly a capitalist disease. (Important as this conceit is to the story, my Google searches haven’t been able to turn up any references to the “There are no murders in paradise”/”Murder is a capitalist disease” dogma outside of articles about Child 44, and this page seems to raise some questions about its authenticity. So I don’t know, maybe Smith made the whole thing up.)
This was a bit of an odd assignment for Price as a screenwriter. The material does touch on certain themes that show up a lot in his work: The focus on crime and detective work, the morally ambiguous protagonists, the general noir-ish feel. The problem, though, is that the nature of the project precludes Price from exercising the distinctive touches he would normally bring to those themes. The ’50s Soviet setting cuts him off from the New York/New Jersey milieu he’s most comfortable with, as well as the pop cultural references he often uses to define his characters (think the rock songs in The Wanderers, or Gary Sinise’s Time Machine monologue in Ransom). The earnest grimness of the enterprise prevents him from incorporating the offbeat humor he brought to other neo-noir films like Kiss of Death and Night and the City. And, perhaps most importantly, the much-criticized decision to have all the actors speak English but with a thick Russian accent makes it seem like the characters are speaking a second language they’re not entirely comfortable with, so we don’t get any of the distinctive turns of phrase typical of Price’s acclaimed dialogue.
In the absence of all that, all Price can really do is transcribe Smith’s story. Again, I liked that story, but here it does come across as kind of flat. Credit to director Daniel Espinosa for some positive aspects to this production: The film’s visual aesthetic is thickly, often impressively dingy, and it’s got a killer cast, including not just Hardy and Rapace but also Gary Oldman, Joel Kinnaman, Vincent Cassel–well, the list goes on, so clearly this was viewed as a potential prestige project. But while I didn’t hate the movie, it never really engaged me, and I can’t help but think that the actors’ affected accents may have been to blame for that. They make everything seem somewhat unnatural, and keep the characters at a constant remove from the audience.
The film did diverge from the source material in one big way which I actually thought was an improvement, but discussing it will involve SPOILERS for both the book and the movie, so skip the next paragraph if that’s a concern for you.
Again, spoilers ahead: The book ends with Leo discovering that the killer is actually his long-lost younger brother, who has been using the murders as a way to get Leo’s attention. I hated this twist. Smith had already drawn me in with well-sketched characters and a vivid milieu (regardless of how accurate that milieu was to its historical basis), and I felt like the book was cheapened by the inclusion of a pulpy, contrived conclusion. The film thankfully removes this wrinkle; its killer still gets to deliver a “We’re not so different, you and I” speech to the hero, but they don’t have any unlikely personal connection. I do wonder if this was always the case in Price’s script or if it was a late revision, as Leo’s face when he first sees the killer seems to convey a dazed sense of recognition which might suggest an alternate edit that retained the original twist.
In any case, this positive aspect is still too little too late at the end of a lackluster 137-minute feature. That’s a shame, because this is the kind of film which doesn’t get made enough anymore (and which used to be Price ‘s bread and butter): A serious, thoughtful production for mature audiences. Like 2006’s Freedomland, it doesn’t really succeed at what it’s trying to do, but its commercial failure is still bad news for a whole lot of filmgoers.
A few other notes:
• Child 44 was banned in Russia for “distorting historical facts,” a turn of events which might’ve helped the film by generating controversy buzz but, for whatever reason, didn’t.
• One indication of how poorly this movie did is that the sole bonus feature on its DVD release, a short mini-documentary on the production design, has some of the worst title graphics I’ve ever seen.
• As of this posting, Child 44 is the only upcoming project I listed in my “Epilogue” post to have come to fruition, but the HBO miniseries The Night Of (formerly titled Crime) is scheduled to premiere this summer.