Child 44, adapted by Richard Price from Tom Rob Smith’s best-selling novel, focuses on the effects of Stalin’s authoritarian state on the totality of human relationships in the Soviet Union. Acting primarily through the secret service bureaucracy, a dark cloak of suspicion, distrust, and treachery was spread over childhood, love relationships, achievement, friendship, casual exchanges, and even murder investigations.
Raised in an orphanage following a famine in the Ukraine caused by Stalin’s policies, Leo (Tom Hardy) becomes a dutiful officer in the NKDV, a part of the secret service bureaucracy, responsible for arresting traitors. Although it is a job that requires brutality and obedience, Leo retains some trace of decency and honesty, while he excels at his job. When the son of Alexei Andreyev (Fares Fares), a colleague, is raped and killed, but the authorities call it an accident because “murder does not happen in the worker’s paradise.” This is not a meaningless slogan that has been contradicted by reality. It is a mantra that represents the way in which the state requires obedience. Leo at first wants to investigate the crime, but his superior orders him to drop case and insists that he convince the murdered boy’s father to do the same.
Leo quietly persists in investigating the case until Vasili (Joel Kinnaman), another one of his colleagues who Leo has accosted for brutality denounces Leo’s wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace). Leo is given the choice of also denouncing Raisa or being demoted and sent from Moscow to a far-flung outpost. Raisa expresses surprise that Leo is willing to sacrifice his career for her; and Leo is surprised to learn that Raisa has married him because she feared refusing to marry a NKDV officer. They form an uneasy alliance and start their new life, on a much lower rung of the social ladder.
Leo’s new boss General Mikhail Nesterov (Gary Oldman) suspects that Leo has been sent to spy on him. Leo’s interest in the death of another child who appears to have been raped increases his suspicion of Leo and Nesterov parrots the claim that murder is a capitalist crime. Nesterov’s wife, however, concerned for the safety of their sons, persuades Nesterov to help Leo’s investigation.
Leo’s pursuit of the killer requires him and Raisa to risk returning to Moscow. In Moscow, Leo and Raisa seek the aid of Ivan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a friend of Raisa, who turns out to be an NKVD agent whom Leo kills. They must flee Moscow via a boxcar where they are forced to kill several men who are sent to kill Leo. Eventually Leo, Raisa, and General Nester will identify the killer, but this journey highlights the suspicion, treachery, and debauchery that had emerged in Stalinist Russia. It reaffirms the story that the director Espinoza wants to tell: how a corrupt Stalinist bureaucracy stains the totality of human relationships. The danger that Leo and Raisa face during their visit to Moscow and subsequent flight bonds the relationship of the couple in a way that overcomes this dehumanizing bureaucratic nightmare.
Perhaps for this reason, the reviews of Child 44 have been, at best, mediocre. Critics have complained about the grayness, the many examples of the destructive effects of a corrupt bureaucracy, and most importantly, the taut action of a thriller in which an investigator searches for and finds a killer. This story is not simply a murder mystery. It is different from a John LeCarre spy story in which the protagonist must uncover the antagonist despite the bureaucracy. In Child 44, the killer is a quest and the antagonist is the system. The system and its obedient representatives must be fought.
Child 44 is unlike the movie Dr. Zhivago that shows the persistence of humanity in the face of those who would destroy the souls of people. In Child 44, there are no moonlight sleigh rides or themes for Lara or Raisa in this movie. Rather, Child 44 is gritty and gray; it shows the depth from which humanity has plunged. To its credit it also shows how the soul may be redeemed by love and adherence to a principle such as justice.