“There can be no murder in paradise.” That is the intriguing backbone of both novelist Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 best-seller and this rip-roaring adaptation, which casts the multi-faceted Tom Hardy in the role of a battle-hardy member of the military police in Stalin-era Soviet Union.
His Leo Demidov is fiercely devoted to both his country and his wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace); loyalties that are severely tested when Raisa is accused of being a spy. As the pair are forced to flee Moscow, they find themselves embroiled in the case of multiple child murders that the state refuses to acknowledge – because, of course, there is no crime in the USSR.
Smith’s book has been solidly adapted by veteran crime screenwriter Richard Price (Ransom, TV’s Criminal Justice and The Wire) who, after a brisk initial race through history to establish Demidov’s strength of character and the oppressive environment in which he operates, sensibly focuses on the murder mystery at the heart of the story. While the screenplay passes unavoidable comment on the horrors of everyday life in a country where to have an original thought was to commit treason, this atmosphere of ubiquitous suspicion and perpetual paranoia ultimately serves to add an intriguing layer to Demidov’s investigations.
And it’s Demidov’s determination to solve this horrifying case that drives the film; as the scales fall from his eyes, he evolves from a man confident in the black and white morality of Stalinism to one forced to confront the grey areas of human behaviour. As such a man, Hardy is excellent, his inherent mix of strength and compassion giving genuine depth to a character who could simply have been a figurehead for the march of political and social change. Rapace is also great, playing the seemingly dutiful wife who pleasingly reveals herself to be a woman of considerable strength, and who plays an active role in Demidov’s struggle to reveal the truth.
That this is a struggle as personal as it is political is underscored by Oliver Wood’s stunning cinematography, which captures Demidov’s journey from the sweeping ravages of war to the oppressive opulence of success and the claustrophobic confines of exile, with every scene viewed through the miasma of ubiquitous suspicion and perpetual paranoia.
Despite trying to pack too much in, Child 44 is a pleasingly pulpy thriller which passes effective comment on the power of a corrupt society to shape its citizens into heroes or monsters. Ambitious, striking and gloriously gripping.
UK Release: April 17, 2015
An edited version of this review was originally published at The List