EIFF 2016: The Childhood of a Leader

Bérénice Bejo, Liam Cunningham and Robert Pattinson star in Brady Corbet's operatic period drama centred on an unruly child

Film Review by Jamie Dunn | 18 Jun 2016
Film title: The Childhood of a Leader
Director: Brady Corbet
Starring: Tom Sweet, Bérénice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Robert Pattinson, Stacy Martin, Yolande Moreau
Release date: 19 Aug

For the last decade or so, 27-year-old American actor Brady Corbet has carved out a career as a character actor for some of the greatest auteurs (Haneke, Von Trier) and most promising young filmmakers (Antonio Campos, Mia Hansen-Løve, Ruben Östlund) working today. On those film sets, he clearly wasn’t playing Angry Birds between takes. With his own directorial debut, Childhood of a Leader, Corbet delivers a film as ambitious and formally dazzling as any in which he’s performed. There are hints of flavours belonging to several filmmakers he’s acted for, but the heady brew Corbet creates is all his own.

The film opens with a montage of archive images from the First World War set to heart-attack inducing strings that cut like knives, courtesy of Scott Walker. The rest of the film concerns war within a well-to-do family, and it’s their adolescent son causing the uprising. We first meet the cherub (mesmerising newcomer Tom Sweet) playing an angel in a nativity play, serenely shaking his long blonde locks from his face. The next time we see him he’s throwing rocks at the audience as they leave the church.

It’s 1919. War has ceased and the problem child has recently moved from New York to a crumbling château in northern France, the bare, mud-splattered landscape suggesting it’s situated somewhere in no man's land. His father (Liam Cunningham) is an emissary of Woodrow Wilson’s government, here to oversee the final peace negotiations with Germany; diplomacy at home is even more fraught.

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The boy’s young German mother (Bérénice Bejo) forces him to say sorry to the parish’s congregation. He does so with all the sincerity of Johnny Depp’s recent apology to Australia, before rushing home to throw up. Tantrums around the new cuisine, French lessons and prayer follow. Later the little imp takes to walking round the house naked after one too many people mistake him for a girl.

Corbet follows these battles of will with operatic virtuosity, his sense of space, rhythm and textures suggesting he’s studied the great stylists like Hitchcock and Welles as much as the current austere European masters. Shot by Lol Crawley, the camera roams the house at full tilt, spinning and swirling with overhead shots and long tracking sequences; we even get a homage to Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale. It adds a feverish quality to this buttoned-up psychodrama that becomes increasingly Freudian.

Much is suggested, little explained, but the film is rich with allegorical meaning and we’re left with plenty to chew on between elliptical episodes. The boy’s complete misunderstanding of Aesop's lion and the mouse fable points to privilege as fuel for his terrifying ego while a double cameo by Robert Pattison adds suspicion to the boy’s parentage, which might be cause for his rebellion.

It’s through Pattison’s first role as a German journalist and friend of the family that Cobert most clearly lays his cards on the table. “That’s the tragedy of war,” Pattison’s character says to the boy’s father over a game of billiards. “Not that one man has the courage to be evil, but that many haven’t the courage to be good.” Corbet is inviting us to examine our role in the tyranny around us. Tyrants aren’t born, he seems to be saying, they’re moulded, and we as a society are the sculptors.

The Childhood of a Leader screens at Odeon, 18 Jul, 8.35pm & Cineworld, 19 Jul, 6.10pm

Released across the UK by Metrodome 19 Aug

EIFF runs 15-26 Jul http://edfilmfest.org.uk