The feature film debut of actor-cum-writer/director Brady Corbet, The Childhood of a Leader, is another slug right into the heart of Twilight fan girls and boys still following the career of Robert “Edward” Pattinson in the hope he’ll star in another sparkle-infused slab of play-to-the-back-rows schmaltz.
But they should know by now that following the former long-toothed, vampire pin-up boy into the cinema these days is risky business.
In 2012 director David Cronenberg, veteran of body horror and batty indie pics, ushered in a new era Pattinson by plonking the performer’s caboose into a limousine and pummelling him with allegories about post-GFC existential despair in Cosmopolis. Those lured to the box office purely for the heartthrob factor found themselves not so much in wrong cinema as in the wrong plane of existence.
The 2014 Australian dystopian film The Rover, in which Pattinson plays a feeble-minded criminal, may have been slightly more palatable – at least there were a few more bullets and moving vehicles. By this point things were, however, beginning to look suspiciously like a certain somebody was intent on emerging from an arty cocoon as a real, serious, respected, bona fide capital-A Actor.
Pattinson has an important supporting role in The Childhood of a Leader, though not a particularly large one. His is a little like a bookend performance, with a few bits and bobs sticking out in the middle.
It’s not the size of his role, however, that will disappoint or even shock the Stephenie Meyer-educated legions still following Pattinson into battle. It’s the haughty, highfalutin, wildly ostentatious, high art film that shimmers with its own sense of self-importance.
One can’t dismiss The Childhood of a Leader (which plays in competition at this year’s Sydney Film Festival) as banal, hot air-infused pomp; there are simply too many things that are too interesting about it. But this dark and mysterious sort-of coming-of-age drama is borderline impenetrable on some occasions, and borderline infuriating on others. The sort of experience perfect for the festival circuit and poison for the box office.
The protagonist is seven-year-old Prescott (Tom Sweet), a confused and cantankerous little fellow who lives in France circa 1918 with his German mother (Berenice Bejo) and American diplomat father (Liam Cunningham), an adviser to President Woodrow Wilson. Neither seem to be very good parents and Prescott is closer to his maid (Yolande Moreau).
Nor is it easy to see how the child’s increasingly disruptive behaviour – from throwing rocks to groping his French teacher (Stacy Martin) and worse – can be effectively countered. The boy doesn’t care for authority, that’s for sure; nor does he seem scared by adults. What might otherwise have been fear feels more like festering resentment.
If nothing else, the film is a memorable picture of a young boy and his problems, buffeted by a handful of strong performances and high calibre production values. The big question is whether Prescott’s persona will abide by the Jesuit maxim: “Give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man”.
Or at least, one of the big questions. Introductory snippets of WWI-era archival footage give The Childhood of a Leader a quasi-historical feel as if Corbet is nudging us to consider the story in a wider than usual context. Indeed, who is the leader?
The screenplay (by Corbet and Mona Fastvold) was inspired by – and takes its name from – a 1939 short story by Jean-Paul Sartre, which charted the growth of a young boy into an anti-Semitic Fascist. There are surprises in store, but not resolutions. The director has a thirst for playing intellectual funny games much like the Austrian director Michael Haneke (who was presumably an inspiration).
Scott Walker’s violent, violin-heavy score stabs the air like a knife. Lol Crawley’s cinematography is darkly exquisite and immensely well-controlled – no doubt at Corbet’s insistence. Nevertheless Crawley can linger on a static shot of a curtain for five seconds too long and those seconds feel like an eternity. Or he can slowly turn the camera until it is completely upside-down.
If the writing were tuned to more specific, dramatic, event-based detail and if Corbet’s direction wasn’t so damn coy, the preferencing of highbrow mood above interesting plotlines could have been something very special. The Childhood of a Leader is still an unquestionably strong debut; one gets a sense this is a tantalising peak at the young filmmaker’s potential power.
Robert Pattinson, for what it’s worth, is pretty good. More curious than the film itself is that his recent aspirations towards thespian status numbers him among a growing number of young, male actors getting famous in hugely populist movies then doubling down on bat shit crazy, weird stuff.
Shia LaBeouf is a case in point, moving from the Transformers franchise into a fetishistic appreciation for “performance art” – if you can use those words to describe a man locking himself in an elevator for 24 hours or walking the red carpet with a paper bag on his head.
The Sydney Film Festival also showcases the latest mischief from Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe. He got naked on Broadway with a horse a few years back; now he gives the crucial performance in the so-called “farting corpse” movie Swiss Army Man. Pattinson, however much he may be divorcing himself from all those tweens, looks restrained by comparison.