VOD film review: The Childhood of a Leader
James R | On 12, May 2018
Director: Brady Corbet
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Bérénice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Yolande Moreau
Robert Pattinson is one of the most interesting actors working today. That’s partly because he’s such a complex screen presence, but it’s also because he makes such interesting, brave decisions – ever since his deserved success in the Twilight movies, he has worked on a wide range of arthouse and indie movies, under filmmakers including Claire Denis, James Gray and David Cronenberg, often in surprising and unflattering roles – a character actor with leading man clout. While he only appears for a relatively short part of The Childhood of a Leader, it’s a notable appearance that carries a crucial sting, and one that confirms his artistic instincts are shrewdly on point.
The film marks the directorial debut of Brady Corbet, then known as an actor from a variety of projects, including Michael Haneke’s Funny Games remake. Since then, he’s gone in to helm Vox Lux, starring Natalie Portman, and there’s a parallel feel to this movie’s story of a tumultuous upbringing and an adulthood that’s gone rotten at its core. Instead of the modern pop industry, our child is rooted in the aftermath of WWI, as the young leader in question is raised in France by a couple – Liam Cunningham and Bérénice Bejo – who have moved there to help negotiate the Treaty of Versailles. And instead of a climactic pop concert, there’s a rally for the future dictator in waiting, who, not unlike Vox Lux’s musical celebrity, has his own baying crowd of fans.
His mother and father, despite having the lion’s share of the runtime, are tellingly nameless; this is a story of absent carers, negligent guardians, loveless authoritarian rule and a fundamental disconnect between child and parent. One scene sees them dismiss the housemaid, sparking a sulk from the boy that comes with the departure of a rare emotional connection – his only other meaningful relationship is with his tutor, and it’s a bond that takes an ominously dark (and presciently topical for the USA) turn during one French lesson.
Cunningham, whose rise in prominence since Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers has been a joy to witness, is wonderfully stern as the leader of the house, and he’s supported by a chillingly fractured Bejo, whose distant, confused presence is a striking counterpart to Tom Sweet’s eponymous ward. His almost cherub-like appearance gives way to an uneasy, eccentric, demanding figure, a transformation that’s accompanied by a suitably grandiose, operatic score by Scott Walker. Corbet, meanwhile, who co-wrote the script (based on Jean-Paul Sartre’s story) with Mona Fastvold, paces the domestic decline with patient portent, a streak of dark humour (the chapter titles divide the tale into “Tantrums”), and some increasingly dazzling, disorienting camerawork.
Pattinson, meanwhile, is charismatic and imperious as Charles Marker, an associate of Cunningham’s politician, who makes an impression in more ways than one during his brief time on screen – and whose mirror image gives us a final, grim note at the end of a tense, chilling crescendo.