Out Now. See here for Tyneside Cinema listings.
Directed by Brady Corbet.
Review by Simon Ramshaw
Remember Thunderbirds? I mean the 2004 live-adaptation starring Bill Paxton, Ben Kingsley and a very young Vanessa Hudgens? No? Few people do. I doubt its leading man, Brady Corbet does either. After all, in the 12 years since, Corbet has moved from heading up poor blockbusters, to being part of critically-revered ensembles for both America and Europe’s leading indie filmmakers, building notoriety as an actor along the way. Now, he’s trying out directing, and quelle surprise, it turns out he’s a dab-hand at that too.
To approach The Childhood of a Leader with a scrutinising historical lens is to misunderstand the film. True, the film takes place in France during the tumultuous period surrounding the creation of the Treaty of Versailles, but Corbet uses no real-life figures in his film. Instead, he chronicles the childhood of a boy (unnamed until the intense finale), the son of an American delegate and his German wife, who develops across three chapters, or, as the film so dryly puts it, ‘tantrums’. Our protagonist is a troubled child, undoubtedly, but Corbet has the good sense not to make him mirror a character like The Omen’s malevolent Damien. He allows us moments of sympathy with the boy, reeling us in before casting us back out again with a precocious fit of rage.
It’s been a great year for child performances. From Jacob Trembley’s astonishing work in Room to the young ensemble in Netflix’s Stranger Things, we’ve made more than a handful of excellent discoveries from the youth of today. Tom Sweet is no exception to the rule. Sweet’s portrayal of the eponymous child is a riveting, brave performance, and his costuming works phenomenally well with him. His bobbed hair not only lets him be uncomfortably mistaken for a girl on numerous occasions, but it adds an extra element of mystery to Sweet’s performance, often almost covering his dissatisfied, contemptuous eyes, allowing the audience but a glance of his astounding performance.
Sweet is given solid support from Berenice Bejo’s austere matriarch, and Liam Cunningham is reliably sturdy, despite an undeniably shaky American accent. But it’s Robert Pattinson that steals it from the sidelines, bobbing in and out of the narrative just irregularly enough to cause some serious unease. Pattinson’s last-minute pay-off in the film is perhaps its most affecting moment, but I shan’t say any more about that. One thing is guaranteed though: it’ll make your head spin in more ways than one.
But beyond Corbet’s sensitive treatment of uncomfortable psychology and his confident handling of an ensemble, it is music veteran Scott Walker that emerges as the MVP. The writer and singer of The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore (alongside his brothers), Walker carries on his experimental new-age streak with a baroque, percussive soundtrack, combining the aural spectacle of a 100-piece orchestra with the unbridled formal creativity of, say, Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling There Will Be Blood score. A genuinely exciting piece of music, it may be the year’s very best soundtrack (and, believe me, when Cliff Martinez’s career-best work on The Neon Demon exists, that is not an easy statement to make).
If there’s one gripe to be had, it’s that The Childhood of a Leader is simply too short. At 116 minutes, there’s barely enough time for the narrative to breathe, leaving the three tantrums feeling a tad rushed in the film’s epic scope. Corbet could have (should have) made the film at least twice the length, and he would’ve had a masterpiece for the ages. But when the worst thing I can say about a film is that I wanted more from it, there’s little reason to throw a tantrum.