IT COULD have been the film equivalent of a masterful TV noir drama, but Child 44 merely bores, says Alistair Harkness
FILM OF THE WEEK
Child 44 (15)
Directed by: Daniel Espinoza
Starring: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Paddy Considine, Joel Kinnaman
Star rating: **
Long-listed for the Man Booker prize, optioned by Ridley Scott and adapted for the screen by novelist-turned-blue-chip-screenwriter Richard Price, Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 literary thriller Child 44 arrives in cinemas with the kind of dull thud befitting a novel of door-stopper weightiness rather than a work endowed with soaring prose and considerable storytelling prowess.
That’s too bad, because its story, which time-warps a fictionalised take on Iron Curtain serial killer Andrei “the Red Ripper” Chikatilo into a post-World War Two Soviet Union, certainly furnishes the film with an intriguing central premise. Using the conventions of a murder-mystery to investigate the miasmic terror of Stalinism, it asks the question: if the state decrees murder to be a strictly capitalist disease, how can a serial killer exist in the “paradise” promised by Communism?
That’s the doublethink conundrum confronting Tom Hardy’s Leo Demidov, a war hero turned Soviet secret policeman whose job at the Ministry for State Security comes under threat when he starts questioning the official version of his godson’s death. The boy was found unclothed in a forest with surgical scars on his body, and his demise doesn’t square with the hit-by-a-train accidental death verdict recorded by the coroner – and Demidov knows it.
His unease at toeing the party line is evident in the way he’s barely able to look his tearful comrades in the eye when forced to deliver this state-sanctioned lie to the grieving parents he counts as his closest friends.
A puppy dog of a leading man, vulnerability forever bleeding through his physique’s pit-pull brutishness, Hardy is able to make Demidov sympathetic here without diminishing the fear-inspiring connotations of his career. His misgivings about being a symbol of Stalin’s Soviet ideal have not yet awoken his consciousness to the fact that people view him as a monster thanks to a job that requires him to interrogate anyone even contemplating a challenge to the orthodoxy of the status quo.
Hardy plays this double-edged denial beautifully, to the point where Demidov doesn’t realise his relationship with his wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace, re-teaming with Hardy after last year’s The Drop), is predicated as much on her fear of what he represents professionally as it is on her love for who he might really be as a person.
Demidov’s blinkers really start to fall away, however, after a bit of grudge settling from a slighted colleague (Joel Kinnaman, too one-dimensionally evil to add much genuine menace to the drama). Some Machiavellian bureaucratic wrangling on his part results in loyalty testing aspersions being cast on Raisa which necessitate Demidov fleeing his job and being seconded to a grim Soviet outpost run by Gary Oldman’s General Nesterov. There, stripped of all professional powers and protection, he finds himself confronted with yet more corpses of dead children, butchered in the same manner as his friend’s child.
The ensuing investigation could have made for a taught and terrifying thriller, one that plays on the uniqueness of the scenario to ratchet up the strangeness of the case – like a Soviet True Detective. Instead the only parallel to that masterful piece of television is the sprawling, sluggish pacing, which feels mini-series in length thanks to episodic plotting and a determination to cram in far too much extraneous detail in the form of expositional dialogue and drawn-out subplots. Detracting from the more intriguing procedural aspects of the film, these often make it feel as if we’re being buried in political intrigue, but political intrigue that feels too movie-like in execution to be genuinely compelling.
Judging from Swedish director Daniel Espinosa’s previous films – the Nordic crime thriller Easy Money and the prosaic Denzel Washington spy movie Safe House – overly schematic plots with blindingly obvious resolutions would appear to be a default position for the filmmaker. In Child 44 he once again succeeds in making it hard to care about the story at hand, to the point at which Paddy Considine’s late arrival as Demidov’s child-killing nemesis has very little dramatic impact.
Which isn’t to say the film doesn’t have its plus points. Rapace, though a little under-utilised, provides shading to Raisa that manages to hint at a complicated interior life for the character, despite Price’s script sometimes working against her by spelling everything out with disappointingly leaden dialogue. And Hardy remains eminently watchable throughout, even as the film around him falls victim to its own self-serious intent, dulling his live-wire unpredictability in the process.
Elsewhere, though, the film squanders a good supporting cast, which in addition to Oldman, Considine and Kinnaman includes Charles Dance, Vincent Cassell and Jason Clarke. Reducing their parts to extended cameos – too sporadically deployed to build to anything meaningful, too heavily accented to avoid being a distraction – Child 44 feels like a big missed opportunity.
The Salvation (15)
Directed by: Kristian Levring
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgen, Jonathan Pryce
Star rating: ***
It’s the curse of the film critic to spend a lot of time pining for the film you wish had been made rather than the one that’s actually been made, but when confronted with a movie as proficiently executed as The Salvation that still doesn’t excite in the way that it should, it’s hard not to indulge in the “what if?” game.
Which isn’t to say this stripped-down Danish Western is dull. Starring Mads Mikkelsen as an immigrant soldier who finds himself squaring off against a town full of venal and vicious reprobates after killing the man responsible for murdering his newly arrived wife and son, the film has a pleasing old school commitment to the primal beauty of seeing frontier justice unleashed by taciturn men who take no pleasure in killing.
But that’s also its problem. Director Kristian Levring (one of the original signatories of the Dogme 95 manifesto) and co-writer Thomas Anders Jeffers (Denmark’s most prolific screenwriter) are so well-versed in the machinations of the genre that their ability to deconstruct an American artform and deliver a perfectly calibrated Danish spin on it just isn’t subversive enough, especially after decades of movies about quiet men from all walks of life going kill-crazy after being pushed too far.
The biggest “what if?” when watching The Salvation, then, occurs when Eva Green shows up. Hatred burned into her retinas, scarred across her mouth and mute from a grisly-sounding glossectomy, what if Levering and Jeffers had built the film around her character instead of Mikkelson’s? Having been forcibly married to the man responsible for killing Mikkelsen’s family, she has a demented backstory and enough reason – courtesy of the way her evil brother-in-law (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) stakes a proprietary claim on her newly widowed form – to unleash some hellfire revenge of her own. Making her the focal point would have instantly transformed The Salvation from a well-crafted throwback to a progressive – or at least provocatively different – movie proposition. But no, despite dispensing some shotgun violence near the end, Green, as is so often the case, has once again been deployed as a fascinating creature of camp, erotic exoticism, literally seen and not heard, but still able to suggest more with a smoky-eyed glower than the majority of her male counterparts can muster with reams of script to chew over. That she becomes a de facto damsel in distress is doubly frustrating, even when an actor as charismatic and unusual as Mikkelsen (with whom she last worked on Casino Royale) is cast as her noble saviour. She’s this film’s salvation: if only its makers had crafted the film accordingly.
A Little Chaos (12A)
Directed by: Alan Rickman
Starring: Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Matthias Schoenaerts
Star rating: ***
With the opening scenes of Alan Rickman’s second outing as a director featuring the man himself as Louis XIV, disdainfully delivering a lecture on kingly comportment, it’s disappointing to discover he’s not the main player in this quaint period drama set against the backdrop of landscape gardening. Instead the film zeroes in on Kate Winslet’s character, Sabine, a proto-feminist designer whose maverick talents win her a commission to work with the king’s architect, André Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts), on the construction of the gardens at the Palace of Versailles. Impressed by Sabine’s fortitude, the unhappily married Le Nôtre inevitably falls for her, but their love affair lacks much conviction thanks to the arboreal nature of Schoenaerts’ performance and the backstory concocted for Sabine, which spends far too long hinting at the obvious. Still, Winslet is typically commanding in the lead and there are entertaining flourishes from Rickman, Jennifer Ehle and Stanley Tucci.
Directed by: Gerard Barrett
Starring: Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, Toni Collette
Star rating: ***
Despite its über-grim setting reflecting the box-ticking familiarity of a lot of publically funded European cinema, this second feature from 27-year-old Irish writer/director Gerard Barrett pushes at the contours of its characters’ alcoholism and crime-riddled existence in ways that transcend such strictures. Jack Reynor – last seen in Transformers: Age of Extinction – returns to the more grounded territory of What Richard Did as a young taxi driver burdened by the never-asked-for responsibility of trying to stop his alcoholic mother (Toni Collette) drinking herself to death. The complicated nature of their relationship is beautifully and wrenchingly excavated in a centrepiece confrontation, built around Collette baring her character’s soul with minimum sentimentality and maximum raw heartache.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (15)
Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Starring: Addison Timlin, Veronica Cartwright, Anthony Anderson
Star rating: ***
Beyond capitialising on the vague familiarity of a title, most horror remakes have little interest in courting comparisons with their source material. This reworking of 1976’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown, on the other hand, incorporates into its premise not just the plot of the little-remembered original, but the film itself, its real-life inspiration (it was based on a series of unsolved murders that took place in Texas in the 1940s), and the problematic legacy of both. The result functions as a playful meta-commentary on the power of slasher movies, part-Scream, part-Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Kicking off with a grisly copycat murder after a drive-in screening of the 1976 movie, the film, inset, proceeds to deliver a series of inventive deaths as past fantasy starts bleeding into present-day reality. Knowledge of the first film probably helps, but it’s a nifty little genre experiment nonetheless.
Gente De Bien (12A)
Director: Franco Lolli
Starring: Brayan Santamariá, Carlos Fernando Perez, Alejandra Borrero
Star rating: ***
Colombian drama about a working class single father whose dire straits are complicated when a well-meaning bourgeois woman hires him as a handyman and welcomes him and his little boy into her family. Though it depends on some massively manipulative canine heartache for its tear-jerking finale, Gente De Bien – the title translates as “good people” but also means “the affluent” – displays real sensitivity in its larger exploration of the altruistic limits of a class-conscious society.
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