The Childhood of a Leader
dir Brady Corbet
scr Brady Corbet, Mona Fastvold
prd Brady Corbet, Chris Coen, Helena Danielsson, Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre, Istvan Major
with Tom Sweet, Berenice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Robert Pattinson, Stacy Martin, Yolande Moreau, Rebecca Dayan, Sophie Curtis, Jacques Boudet, Andrew Osterreicher, Michael Epp, Luca Bercovici
release US Jun.16 bcf, UK 19.Aug.16
15/UK 1h55
The Childhood of a Leader
Family friend: Bejo and Pattinson

cunningham martin moreau
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
The Childhood of a Leader A fascinating, challenging exploration of the genesis of authoritarianism, this film cleverly mixes fact and fiction to recount a parable about power. It's relentlessly dark, but full of engaging characters who bring the story and themes to vivid life. And actor-turned-filmmaker Brady Corbet takes a beautifully artistic approach.

In 1918 Paris, an American diplomat (Cunningham) is negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, while his wife (Bejo) and pre-teen son Prescott (Sweet) remain in their country home with their maid (Moreau) and nanny (Martin). Prescott is a strong-willed child who refuses to cut his hair, challenging authority and throwing a series of epic tantrums to get his way. His father is too busy, his mother is lonely and frail, the maid is indulgent and the nanny unable to control him. Watching this in bemused detachment is Charles (Pattinson), a family friend with plans of his own.

Every scene in the film is steeped in suggestions about what's really going on beneath the surface, from quiet back-room deals to possible affairs being carried on by both mother and father. In this sense, the story is seen through Prescott's immature perspective, adding a sense of understanding to his seemingly irrational tirades. The political situation is cleverly portrayed using a combination of vintage newsreel footage and pointed ideological discussions.

Performances are both stylised and raw, filmed like a classic painting with natural candlelight illuminating haunted eyes in the deep shadows (the walls all seem to be painted black). Bejo is the focal point, and her desire to take care of her son without turning him into a monster is intertwined with her oddly distant relationship with her husband, played by Cunningham as a man with such a fierce intellect that human imperfections are simply inconceivable. So it's no wonder that Sweet's Prescott is so intriguingly fragile, angry and tough.

Yes, this is a complex, artful depiction of the wide array of variables that shifted in Europe to pave the way for the rise of populist tyrants like Mussolini and Hitler. The way the story closes in around the characters is provocative and often painful to watch, especially as the characters betray each other. And the final sequence is so swirly and surreal that it's not quite clear what it truly means. But it certainly leaves the audience thinking. And its resonance in the era of Donald Trump is almost too strong.

cert 15 themes, violence 31.May.16

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© 2016 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall