Part serial-killer thriller, part old-school anti-Soviet propaganda, "Child 44" plays like a curious relic of an earlier Cold War mindset, when Western audiences took comfort that they were living on the right side of the Iron Curtain and relied on movies to remind them as much.
Here, the central character is an obedient MGB, or secret police, agent played by Tom Hardy who, like the rest of the pic's starry Euro ensemble, delivers his lines in a thick Russian accent.
Set in 1953, the film, inspired by the Tom Rob Smith novel, presents an image of the Soviet Union in which ordinary citizens live in fear of peers and secret police alike. Though suspicion and paranoia are rampant, the authorities don't concern themselves with traditional crime fighting, living by the maxim "There is no murder in paradise" and focusing their attention instead on curbing subversive behavior.
How then to explain the body of a young boy found naked and mutilated beside the railroad tracks in Moscow? Anticipating trouble, the senior MGB officer, Maj. Kuzmin (Vincent Cassel), enlists star investigator Leo Demidov (Hardy), who also happens to be the victim's godfather, to deliver the official report, which lists the cause of death as an accident. "A train doesn't undress a boy!" his grief-stricken mother wails, demanding that her son's killer be brought to justice.
But such claims are potentially treasonous in a society obliged to accept Stalin's claim that murder is "strictly a capitalist disease," and trying to convince the woman otherwise starts to erode Leo's belief in the system.
A survivor of Ukraine's mass starvation, Leo has climbed the party ranks by playing along with such hypocrisies. Still, he reserves compassion for children.
Driven by his own difficult upbringing, Leo finds that his concern for young people makes it difficult to ignore what appears to be an ongoing series of child murders, though that challenge feels minor compared with his next assignment, in which he is asked to investigate and potentially denounce his own wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace, adding yet another accent to her chameleonic repertoire).
When Leo refuses, he's demoted and shipped off with Raisa to a remote outpost, where the local general (Gary Oldman) suspects that he, too, is under investigation. With the murders piling up in the background, it might have been amusing to invite audiences to speculate as to who's responsible, though the killer's identity has been changed from Smith's novel to a seriously disturbed side character.
Through it all, the cast members play their parts in earnest, especially Hardy, who may be playing a gorilla in a Three Stooges haircut but pulls it off with the conviction of a young Marlon Brando.
For her part, Rapace unmasks several interesting dimensions of Raisa's character, whose intentions aren't entirely clear at first.
In a powerful scene late in the film, we learn that she agreed to marry not for love but out of simple self-preservation, which makes every subsequent decision she makes a potential revelation, even if they're headed in a more or less predictable direction (right down to the patently false feel-good coda).
Considering how critical it has been of the USSR until this point, "Child 44" has a curious idea of a happy ending.
"Child 44" - 2 stars (out of four)
MPAA rating: R (violence, disturbing images)
Running time: 2:17