We’re in the midst of a World War II-themed film wave. Without meaning to be glib, that era will continue to fuel cinema narratives for the obvious reasons: multiple stories of varying levels of action, drama, redemption and credulity.
Last week’s release A Royal Night Out dramatised a joyous albeit minor moment; next week’s release, Woman in Gold, offers a dramatic and redemptive tale about art repatriation.
One thing is apparent though; we’re in a period in which film, or audiences, aren’t willing to look back with humour or lightness. The Producers’ Springtime for Hitler feels a long time ago, even if one of the better comic novels of recent years has been Timur Vermes’s incendiary reimagining of Hitler revived in modern times, Look Who’s Back. (The Germans at least can now look back in humour.) Last year, The Monuments Men tried to emulate the Boy’s Own adventure approach to World War II escapades but couldn’t maintain its tone.
So we have a film like Child 44 (MA15+, eOne, 139 min, $39.99) which is a throwback to a period when we were happy to sit through films reminding us just how horrid the whole enterprise — and its aftermath — was. This adaptation of Tom Rob Smith’s hit novel will attract many viewers if only because it has a cast led by Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and Gary Oldman and also featuring Vincent Cassel, Jason Clarke and Paddy Considine.
This is a crisis of conscience film that begins with a scene-setter in the Ukrainian famine of 1933, sweeps briskly through the Red Army’s liberation of Berlin and then on to 1953, when the “hero” of the previous scenes, Hardy’s Leo (who is chosen as the soldier waving the Soviet flag atop the Reichstag in 1945, no less) is a revered senior member of Stalin’s secret police force.
This is where the plot fractures as Leo is exiled to a regional posting after refusing to denounce his wife (Rapace) in this era of surveillance, mistrust, disgrace and brutality.
Leo is shown to have a conscience, of sorts, which fuels his nemesis, Vasili (Joel Kinnaman). Meanwhile, Leo is also on the trail of a serial killer of little boys, which adds to a couple of previous grim scenes but also seems to be where screenwriter, and New York crime legend, Richard Price, and director Daniel Espinosa ( Safe House) seem most comfortable.
Overall, it is a dour, overlong yet involving film, elevated by Oliver Wood’s cinematography and some affecting scenes between Rapace and Hardy. Hardy has lost a little of his lustre in recent films as he’s lurched between unintelligible ( The Dark Knight Rises), minimal ( Mad Max: Fury Road) or maddening ( The Drop) accents. He’s back into something resembling credibility in the coming biopic about the Kray twins, Legend, but here in Child 44, Oldman and Cassel in particular accent him off the battlefield.