Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Film Review: Child 44 (2015)

“You run because you’re followed,
  If you’re followed then you’re arrested,
  If you’re arrested then you’re already guilty…”

After being declared a war hero in the Battle of Berlin, Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) lives a comfortable bourgeois life in the elite of the Stalin-era Soviet secret police hunting traitors and forcing confessions from them.  One of the most recent ‘traitors’ Anatoly Brodsky (Jason Clarke) is tortured into giving Major Kuzmin (Vincent Cassell) a number of names, one of which is Demidov’s wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) whom he then has to investigate in order to prove his loyalty. 

Meanwhile Demidov has become distracted by the deaths of young boys, including the son of his close colleague Alexei Andreyev (Fares Fares) to whom he has to deliver the official death report which claims that he died in a train accident, even though he appears to have been found naked with strange surgical scars on his body… 

When Demidov raises his suspicions about a serial child-killer to his superiors he is reminded of Stalin’s assertion that there ‘can be no murder in paradise’, and the very accusation contradicts the prevailing ideology leading to his demotion.  He then must suppress his suspicions against his wife and try to solve what is happening to the young boys…

The recent real-life geopolitical hostilities of Russia have led to a returning comfort in Hollywood films to cast Russians as corrupt and villainous (see the recent John Wick).  Whereas the Middle East has occupied the space of Hollywood Villain for the past decade, it looks as though the cold-war tensions are firmly back in place in Hollywood. 

The insanity of authoritarian regimes is that they suffer from the tyranny of infallibility: if the state can never be seen to be wrong then everyone who is accused of a crime is automatically guilty be default.  This also means that certain crimes simply cannot exist in a perfect society.  All civilian murder must be blamed on the corrupting influence of The West, even if everyone knows that deviants are taken away and murdered by the state.  All deviancies are punished, shown explicitly in one scene where suspected homosexuals are rounded up and killed as if they were as sinful as potential child-killers.

The inescapable and deadly bureaucracy threatens Demidov from the second he questions his role as spy-catcher, and his position quickly comes back to haunt him.  Where his and the rest of the militaries’ questioning techniques relied mainly on intimidation and violence, this makes collecting evidence when he actually needs it impossible.

In order to highlight the misery and drudgery of the oppression on the Russian people, Child 44 is coloured entirely with a palette of browns and greys – which effectively reinforces the uniformity of civil life and the lack of hope for society.  The problem is that this narrow variety of colours makes certain scenes incomprehensible – two of the fight scenes are embarrassingly hard to follow simply because everyone has the same costumes, make-up and poor lighting.  As usual with this kind of production, another problem is the need to tune your ear into the awkward Russian accents of Western actors…

The past few years have seen a resurgence of child-killer narratives across film and television and a trend towards darker murder-mysteries than audiences have seen in the past.  This might be due to the mediums trying to compete for increasingly artistic, adult content in reaction to the overwhelming influx of superhero blockbusters.  Or it could be just in response to the general anxiety towards the state of the modern world (who knows)…

Child 44 is a narrative that laments the end of the cold war and revels in the depiction of a conspiratorial and authoritarian enemy (Soviet Russia) that audiences can comfortably despise knowing their own government is morally superior.  But with the amount of child abuse cover-ups in the UK (not to mention the Vatican) that have surfaced recently, maybe the real message is that audiences should stop fetishizing violence against children and look to protect real young people against the bureaucracy of the state.

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