Year Released: 2015
Directed by: Daniel Espinosa
Starring: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman
(R, 137 min.)
Genre: Mystery and Suspense, Drama
“There is no crime in paradise.” MGB agent Vasili Nikitin
Follow the critics’ advice on this one and stay home – that is, unless you value fine acting, measured suspense, and emotional texture. Another bonus – they banned it in Russia.
That alone enticed this rebel spirit to go see the film that takes place in Joseph Stalin’s 1953 Soviet Union, where a secret police agent finds his loyalties tested as his superiors try to cover the trail of a serial child killer.
After all, one of the finest films Different Drummer has ever seen was 1994’s To Live (Szechuan Hot Chili Oil on Noodles Recipe) was also censored in its native country:
No wonder it was banned in China and its director and star were placed under gag orders. To Live depicts all too well the brutal upheavals of the communist revolution in this poignant saga of one family trying to survive its embrace.
Today Russia is saying Child 44 distorts history and casts the Soviet Union as "a sort of Mordor, populated by physically and morally defective sub-humans, a bloodbath on screen involving Orcs and vampires."
Here is a more objective summary:
A politically-charged serial killer thriller set in 1953 Soviet Russia, CHILD 44 chronicles the crisis of conscience for secret police agent Leo Demidov [Tom Hardy], who loses status, power and home when he refuses to denounce his own wife, Raisa [Noomi Rapace], as a traitor. Exiled from Moscow to a grim provincial outpost, Leo and Raisa join forces with General Mikhail Nesterov [Gary Oldman] to track down a serial killer who preys on young boys. Their quest for justice threatens a system-wide cover-up enforced by Leo’s psychopathic rival Vasili [Joel Kinnaman], who insists “There is no crime in Paradise.”
Somehow, if the setting had been the United States and the CIA rather than the Russian MGB the villains, I think not only Russia but our various unimpressed critics would be raving, just as they did for Fahrenheit 9/11 or In the Valley of Elah. In fact, an American Leo Demidov a la Jason Bourne, “the left-wing James Bond,” would be celebrated.
But let’s forget the whys and wherefores of the critical negativity and explain why this film is so good.
First of all, the cast is excellent. Tom Hardy, playing the lead, never fails to impress. He caught my eye in last year’s The Drop (Polish Potato Pancakes Recipe) where he played a quiet bartender with understated grace.
Tom Hardy gets into Bob’s skin so effortlessly that we hardly notice. He hides a pain behind his eyes, almost squinting at the sun even in his darkened bar. His walk has just the hint of a shuffle, disillusionment not completely settled in yet, just arranging the furniture.
In Child 44 Tom Hardy’s Leo is an equally complex character. Somehow he manages to play a member of the MGB, a precursor to the KBG, with a kind of sympathetic integrity while at the same time, having to capture and interrogate the pitiable human beings he is assigned to track down.
Early on, he refuses to use his gun in a capture scene, even though the man he pursues begs him to do so. Instead Leo bloodies himself and his prisoner in a knock down fight to submission. He is appalled when his fellow officer Vasili Nikitin (Joel Kinnaman) shoots the couple that has sheltered this suspect, berating and humiliating Vasili in front of fellow officers. And thus earning Vasili’s undying enmity, a touch of which comes early on.
He is at once the burly Russian bear with his dehumanizing military haircut, but Hardy’s Leo also recalls his past as a runaway orphan. He clearly adores his wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace, who also was his romantic interest in The Drop) and refuses to denounce her when she is suspected of being a traitor.
Of course, Leo knows what that failure to denounce her will cost him, just as he knows that his continued interest in finding the killer of his friend’s son also puts him in jeopardy. And neither his wife nor his friend at first seems particularly grateful.
In fact, Raisa finally tells him that she only married Leo out of fear, that even out of uniform he had MGB written all over him. His doting courtship and their marriage was only a means of surviving for her.
However, as the easy life disappears, their quarters reduced to shared squalor, their life as fugitive detectives begins to forge a new bond between the two. Only when Leo sets her free, does Raisa decide the stay with him. Like Hardy, Rapace also conveys it all with her eyes and her posture.
Gary Oldman again shows his range as he plays General Nesterov, the Militia leader whom the demoted Leo must now obey. Again, we have a complex character here, one that is first suspicious and almost violently territorial, stubborn but finally won over by the strength of Leo’s case for a serial killer denied by the authorities.
This fine film touches all the bases. It has intrigue, history, romance, mystery, and political overtones. Yet, by some critics these are considered flaws, since Child 44 does not fit easily into any one genre. And its also lingers in that gray zone between a commercial and art film. It’s so hard to be a critic when you can’t put things into your little boxes, isn’t it?
My advice to you: Think out of the box. Do yourself a favor and see this film that remembers that storytelling is an art, not a slick paint by the numbers computer generated celebrity fest. You’ll have to wait until next month for those.
The opening scene is at an opulent restaurant where champagne in delicate stemmed crystal washes down excellent dinners. It is the last time Leo and his wife Raisa will dine so well. When he follows his conscience and defies orders from his MGB (secret police) superiors, Leo and Raisa must leave their beautiful Moscow apartment and eke out a living in a polluted industrial town.
Leo exchanges his bright MGB uniform for peasant like militia garb while his teacher wife opens the locked door to her classroom to find it a janitor’s closet. Instead of young minds, she is now in charge of a bucket and mop only.
Let’s help them remember better times with our delicious recipe for Blini, or Russian pancakes.
"Widely popular Russian dish, especially eaten during the Maslenitsa festival in Russia. All kinds of fillings are possible--sweet or savory." Roger Scott
Here are a few other Russian dishes and drinks to go with our film:
Blini: Russian Pancakes
Original recipe makes 32 blini
4 1/4 cups milk
1/3 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons white sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon citric acid powder
4 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup boiling water
2/3 cup butter, divided
. Beat together the milk and the eggs. Stir in the salt and the sugar and mix well. Add the baking soda and citric acid.
. Blend in the flour. Add the vegetable oil and pour in the boiling water, stirring constantly. The batter should be very thin, almost watery. Set the bowl aside and let it rest for 20 minutes.
. Melt a tablespoon of butter in a small frying pan over medium-high heat. Pick the pan up off the heat. Pour in a ladleful of batter while you rotate your wrist, tilting the pan so the batter makes a circle and coats the bottom. The blini should be very thin.
. Return the pan to the heat. Cook the blini for 90 seconds. Carefully lift up an edge of the blini to see if it's fully cooked: the edges will be golden and it should have brown spots on the surface. Flip the blini over and cook the other side for 1 minute.
. Transfer the blini to a plate lined with a clean kitchen towel. Continue cooking the blini, adding an additional tablespoon of butter to the pan after each 4 blini. Stack them on top of each other and cover with the kitchen towel to keep warm.
. Spread your favorite filling in the center of the blini, and fold three times to make a triangle shape. You can also fold up all 4 sides, like a small burrito.
Rub the pan with butter or lard after frying every 4 blini. Don't worry if the first few don't turn out right; you'll get the hang of it.
Suggested fillings: cooked ground meat, mashed potatoes with onion, berries, or chocolate sauce.