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Awkward At Times But 'Child 44' Can Hold Audiences' Attention

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You know, I once met the author Tom Rob Smith in Moscow. We were looking at the old KGB headquarters known as Lubyanka. Smith had written a terrifying book called "Child 44" that's set in Soviet times. Lubyanka was in the book, and Tom Rob Smith read his creepy words as we stood there. There was no chance you could be found innocent inside these walls, he said. Smith had thoroughly researched Moscow and Soviet times, and his book became a best-seller. Now, whether Smith's magic could be re-created on the big screen was always a question. Well, seven years after the book, the movie "Child 44" is here, and film critic Kenneth Turan has a review.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: "Child 44" is involving despite itself. This police tale, starring Tom Hardy, is awkward at times, but it musters enough punch to hold our interest. The key is the film's unusual setting - the Soviet Union during the last days of a dictator, Joseph Stalin. It was Stalin who decreed that murder was a disease of capitalism that by definition could not be present in a Soviet society. So the trail of a serial killer would not be investigated because officially. that crime did not exist. The year is 1953 and Leo, played by Hardy, lives in Moscow where he's an officer of the state's internal police. The Soviet system has been good to him. And he never tires of telling friends how he met his wife, played by the girl with the dragon tattoo, Noomi Rapace.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHILD 44")

TOM HARDY: (As Leo Demidov) Remember when we first met? You thought that I was rude.

NOOMI RAPACE: (As Raisa Demidov) You were staring at me.

(LAUGHTER)

HARDY: (As Leo Demidov) I was mesmerized by your beauty. There will always only be you.

TURAN: Suddenly, however, all the system's flaws get personal for Leo. First, his beloved wife is accused of treason. Almost simultaneously, Leo becomes involved in the investigation of the death of a friend's son the state claims was an accident.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHILD 44")

FARES FARES: (As Alexei Andreyev) My boy was murdered.

VINCENT CASSEL: (As Major Kuzmin) Murder is strictly a capitalist disease. You're flirting with treason.

TURAN: "Child 44" effectively takes us back to the drab grimness of the Soviet Union in the 1950s. The film does more than re-create dreary physical locations. It also exposes the rotten nature of a paranoid political system that viewed everyone as a potential traitor suitable for exile or execution. It would be nice to report that Hardy rises to the occasion in this film as a man so obsessed with justice he puts his life and career in jeopardy. But that is not the case. The actor pushes too hard, overdoing both the Russian accent and the emotions. "Child 44's" singular premise allows it to survive, but it is a near thing.

GREENE: That's Kenneth Turan, who reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and also for the Los Angeles Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.