Filmmaking for grown-ups is so scarce these days that it’s tempting to grade Daniel Espinosa’s bleak, bone-crunching thriller Child 44 on a curve: Tom Hardy plays dutiful secret police agent Leo Demidov, who stomps around Stalinist Russia looking to solve a series of grisly child murders that the government would prefer to keep unsolved. A former underling who’s clawed his way to the top (Joel Kinnaman) and a wife who just may be a traitor to her country (Noomi Rapace) complicate his increasingly thorny mission. The picture, adapted by Richard Price from Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 novel, has a chilly little soul to go along with its muted, greenish-sepia color palette. This is a dignified piece of filmmaking, and one that uses brutality to great effect — a knife-and-knuckle brawl set in a freight car is all the more effective for being so dimly lit you can barely see what’s happening, though you feel it in your marrow.
Child 44 isn’t always so grimly exciting: For long stretches, it’s dull and plodding, chugging along on the fumes of its earnest intentions. Still, there are worse ways to kill two hours than watching Hardy work his sturdy magic. Demidov starts out as a true believer in the system, only to become undone by doubt, a transformation Hardy navigates with great subtlety. He’s the manliest of actors, but there’s also a somber softness about him, as if he’s more worrier than warrior. Stout of heart, he’s the movie’s most vital organ.