Have you seen Child 44? It’s the most recent film by Daniel Espinosa, drawn from the book trilogy by Tom Rob Smith. Starring Tom Hardy as a demoted secret police operative trying to end the bloody career of a serial child murderer, it also sports a great ensemble cast that includes Paddy Considine, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Vincent Cassel and (briefly) Charles Dance who amusingly delivers a Russian-ised version of the ‘top-brass’ character he portrayed in The Imitation Game!
Why mention Child 44 here? Well, it’s set in the Stalinist heyday of 1950s Communist Russia and proves to be yet another Hollywood extravaganza that box-ticks the familiar cinematic motifs on “what Russians are like”. If that sounds like I’m being down on the whole production, then I’ll address that right now. I certainly got more out of it than most of the critics, and it set me thinking about those very stereotypes that it keenly, shamelessly portrays. An extra dimension to the evening’s entertainment was counting them off as they appear on-screen, like spotting old friends at a party!
The spoken Russian language is of course English in dour, iron-curtain accents – well this is main-street Hollywood after all, so there are no subtitles to read. All Russians are dour – there’s that word again – or angry, or pragmatic with an occasional tea-spoon-full of eastern humour appearing momentarily from behind the clouds. So far, we are on comfortable ground.
The main protagonists inhabit a colourless world of greyed-out proletariat, plodding stony-faced between home and work, all dressed by the same utilitarian outfitters. Dirty workers are reduced to machine-parts in a hellish, health-hazard factory and women’s faces peer nervously out of chin-tied head-scarves as the chimneys billow black smoke.
The monosyllabic MGB (secret police predecessors to the KGB) are continually making house calls, or dragging ‘denounced’ victims off the street at a moment’s notice. They trade in ‘deals’, implied threats, blackmail, murderous heavies or state-sanctioned torture and execution. Watching the film, we know that if it was set in the early 1990’s then it would be laden with cock-sure Russian mafia types with crew-cuts, gold chains and smart leather jackets.
History tells us that all of the above actually happened, and that Stalin’s era saw some of the most appalling atrocities inflicted upon a nation by its own leader – particularly as his paranoia and insane logic grew to unstoppable proportions. Unfortunately, in depicting a culture solely in such terms, the media does a disservice to the nation’s nature, history and people as a whole. Reducing human beings to clichés devalues their merit in our eyes, leaving us with token, video-game characters. Justice is not done to their respective defeats and tribulations, not to mention their triumphs and achievements.
Putin hates the film, and its release has been reportedly cancelled in Russia. Culture minister Vladimir Medinsky criticised the production for depicting a Russian “Mordor,” inhabited by degenerate “orcs and ghouls”. A great tag line if you happen to be working for the New Zealand tourist board, but for modern day Russia seeking to shed its communist baggage; not so much.
[Photo from IMDB]