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Gripping Child 44 is one of the best films of the year

Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa's masterful and gripping crime-thriller Child 44 is indeed one of the best films of 2015.

Based on author Tom Rob Smith's best-selling novel, Child 44 is set against the backdrop of 1953 Stalinist Russia. This politically charged serial killer thriller 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."

A sumptuous period thriller encompassing themes of power, love, betrayal and murder, Child 44 is loosely based on the crimes of real-life serial killer Andrei Chikatilo. Also known as "The Butcher of Rostov," Chikatilo was convicted of murdering and mutilating 52 women and children in Soviet Russia in the early 1950s.Novelist Tom Rob Smith's fictionalised version of the grisly case met with resounding critical and popular acclaim upon publication in 1998. Winner of the Crime Writers Association's CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger award and translated into 26 languages, Child 44 became the first in a trilogy that now includes The Secret Speech and Agent 6.

"The great thing about detective stories and police investigations is they soak up a lot of the society in which they take place," Smith says. "If you want to understand a world, take a look at the way the police work in that country."

Gripping Child 44 is one of the best films of the year

Slightly surreal

The author's fans include Oscar-winning filmmaker Ridley Scott. Galvanized by Child 44's rich characterisations and epic scope, Scott arranged nine years ago to meet the novelist at his London production headquarters. "It was slightly surreal," recalls Smith. "I'd gone from having this project I thought might not even get published to talking to Ridley Scott in his office sitting next to a Gladiator sword and a prop from Alien. Ridley was full of incredible ideas for the project."

Scott initially intended to direct Child 44 himself. Then he saw Swedish director Daniel Espinosa's 2010 crime thriller Snabba Cash (aka Easy Money). The highest-grossing movie in Swedish history, Snabba Cash showcased Espinosa's inventively staged action sequences and stylish editing. "Ridley liked the movie and invited me dinner," recalls Espinosa. "Just getting a chance to sit down and talk about movies with a master filmmaker like Ridley Scott was a great thrill. Then we started talking about Child 44, which I had already read. I gave him my thoughts and Ridley asked if I wanted to direct the movie with him producing. That was a very cool moment for me."

Once Espinosa signed on to direct, he recruited Oscar-nominated screenwriter Richard Price (The Color of Money, The Wanderers).

Gripping Child 44 is one of the best films of the year

Totalitarian states can crush the human spirit

"While the specifics are rooted in a particular time and place, the story resonates as a universal commentary about the way totalitarian states in general can crush the human spirit. In all my films, I like to look at characters who are undergoing some kind of transformation," says Espinosa, who made his first Hollywood movie, the Denzel Washington blockbuster Safe House, before embarking on Child 44.

"For me, the story of Child 44 is about a man who loses his illusions. So the question then becomes: How does he keep going after everything he's believed in, even his marriage, turns out to be based on lies?"

In Child 44, Espinosa saw an opportunity to blend visceral action sequences with psychologically nuanced character arcs against a rich historic tapestry. "Of course I love the high-energy action aspects of the story, but I also wanted to make this about the characters," says Espinosa. "We wanted to explore the power dynamic between Leo and Raisa. For me, the story raises questions about trust, about what it means to love somebody in a society where everyone's afraid to let down their guard."

Espinosa draws first-rate performances from his superb ensemble. British actor Tom Hardy is riveting in his heartbreaking performance and perfectly balances his character's intense inner conflicts with hard-core action as he struggles to find his humanity in an inhuman situation.

Gripping Child 44 is one of the best films of the year

Charismatic talents

Regarded as one of the most charismatic talents of his generation, Hardy impressed movie-goers as a violent convict in Bronson, then broke through to a global audience with his portrayal of the evil Bane in The Dark Knight Rises and, more recently, he earned both critical and popular acclaim for his role as a Brooklyn bartender with a dark secret in The Drop.

"I've been an admirer of Tom Hardy's work for many years," says Espinosa. "He's one of those enormously talented and committed actors who becomes so subsumed into whatever role he plays that you forget it's him and only see the character on the screen. I was thrilled when he agreed to play Leo, not just because he's one of the most in-demand actors right now, but because I knew he would bring an intensity and honesty to the role that would propel the whole film."

During production on Child 44, Hardy burnished his reputation for meticulous preparation and intense performance. "Tom came in the first day with a very clear idea of who Leo was," says Espinosa. "He manages, with the subtlest expressions, to convey the inner emotions and uncertainty of a man who has been trained his whole life to avoid showing emotion or uncertainty, and who lives in a society where honesty can get you killed. And he does it all with a great Russian accent."

Meek schoolteacher

Equally brilliant is Noomi Rapace, whose portrayal of meek schoolteacher Raisa Demidova marks a dramatic departure from the role that brought her to international attention, the nail-tough title character in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Rapace was also pleased to be back on set with Hardy. "Tom and I have a really good connection," says the Swedish actress. "I feel completely safe with him, so it really became about finding the truth in the scene and seeing how far it could take us. I love working with Tom because I feel like I can do anything, go anywhere, and he always has my back."

To understand Raisa's timidity, Rapace imagined the paranoia experienced by ordinary citizens on a daily basis during the Stalinist regime. "Raisa has this survival instinct where she's constantly scanning the room, playing angles, finding ways to disappear, to fade away, to not stand out," Rapace explains. "You don't want people to pay too much attention to you because that can be dangerous. Raisa's managed to survive by not expressing her feelings or standing up for things, There's a whole war zone going on inside her head but she can't tell anyone because that would be too risky."

Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman, who first worked with Espinosa in Snabba Cash, enjoyed the challenge of developing the treacherous Stalinist Psychopath as a three-dimensional character.

If you are looking for an intelligent crime thriller with bite, Child 44 delivers on all levels.

Read more about Child 44 and other new films opening this week at

About Daniel Dercksen

Daniel Dercksen has been a contributor for Lifestyle since 2012. As the driving force behind the successful independent training initiative The Writing Studio and a published film and theatre journalist of 40 years, teaching workshops in creative writing, playwriting and screenwriting throughout South Africa and internationally the past 22 years. Visit
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