Director: Brady Corbet
Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Robert Pattinson and Stacy Martin
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: August 19th
Anyone who has seen Brady Corbet in the likes of Michael Haneke’s shot-for-shot remake of Funny Games and the criminally under-seen Simon Killer will know that he makes the uneasy look really rather straightforward. Not yet 30 and something of a go-to attractive-but-alarming critical embodiment of the American male for a string of European filmmakers with unapologetically European filmmaking sensibilities, Corbet has moved from one side of the camera to the other in familiar but no less impressive fashion.
Written with his partner Mona Fastvold, The Childhood of a Leader harnesses Corbet’s ability to unsettle, depicting as it does an allegory for the rise of fascism by way of a loveless marriage and troubled formative years. If that sounds much too ambitious and/or scattershot for a debut feature, know that its author not only doesn’t care, he successfully pulls off the gambit, bibliography included in the end credits and all.
A studied art house style bleeds into the screen – literally, in the case of an extended title sequence where text melts messily together for just a fraction of a second long enough to make its own affected point – as the opening seconds of World War I newsreel footage pave the way for Liam Cunningham’s American diplomat and his house of ultimately ill repute. Dispatched to France to oversee the Versailles Peace Conference on behalf of then President Woodrow Wilson, Cunningham’s weary envoy is introduced lamenting the state of the world alongside a recently widowed journalist (Robert Pattinson, setting down another deliberately pointed marker between him and the glitter-speckled ghosts of his past). These are the men who ruminate on and, indeed, decide an uncertain future in a time of violent division. They are not fit for the job.
Just as adrift is his wife (Bérénice Bejo, a world away from the radiant lust for life of The Artist), a woman who belongs in high society forced to settle for isolation and resentment. At the heart of it all, a child. At 10 years of age, their son begins his first of a series of specific tantrums. Amidst this toxic environment rocks are thrown, lines crossed, mind games played and a most vicious wedge formed.
Details are everything in Corbet’s feature, and he works with exceedingly sharp instruments here, not least his cast. Again, at the heart of it all, a child. Armed with the features of Cupid, the locks of a grunge singer and a chilling detachment, newcomer Tom Sweet is astounding in the role of a neglected and possibly irreparably broken lost boy. Though diminutive, he towers throughout, imbuing his unnamed-until-the-end (an act of clever misdirection) upstart with pain and loss.
Corbet paints in broad strokes – his final realised vision is the kind of sledgehammer blow you’ll appreciate or scoff at – and the overall message; the disparity between ignoring close trauma in favour of supposedly bigger needs and the resulting consequences of said indifference isn’t exactly revelatory, but this is a notably confident bow, one aided by an exceptional Sturm und Drang score from Scott Walker and rich visuals courtesy of Lol Crawley. Though undoubtedly indebted to its own father figures, The Childhood of a Leader proves an engaging tale of nascent endeavour in more ways than one.