EIFF film review: The Childhood of a Leader | Ithaca

AS the 70th Edinburgh International Film Festival moves into its final weekend, it's not really shaping up to be a particularly memorable year, but among the handful of films I've liked, the most artistically audacious has been Brady Corbet's The Childhood of a Leader (****).
Meg Ryan came to Edinburgh for Ithaca, her directorial debut. Picture: PAMeg Ryan came to Edinburgh for Ithaca, her directorial debut. Picture: PA
Meg Ryan came to Edinburgh for Ithaca, her directorial debut. Picture: PA

The 27-year-old actor’s directorial debut premiered last week and though it’s not included in this Sunday’s “Best of the Fest” strand, it is the movie that remains most pertinent, especially with what’s going on in the world.

Set in the aftermath of the First World War, the film explores the origins of a fascist leader, one modelled somewhat on Mussolini, but given an extra frisson of contemporary significance by Corbet’s decision to make this future megalomaniac an American by birth and parentage. Blond-haired and angelic-looking, but with an inscrutably baleful disposition reminiscent of Corbet’s own turn as one of the polite teenage sociopaths in Michael Haneke’s US remake of Funny Games, this seven-year-old child is the son of a US diplomat (played by Liam Cunningham) whose job negotiating the Treaty of Versailles stands in ironic contrast to the divide-and-conquer mentality we’re left to imagine his son will embrace later in life.

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Save for a brief, woozy, terrifying final shot of the adult leader (played by a bald and bearded Robert Pattinson), we don’t see the consequences of his rise to power, just the causes that may have set him on this path. But this is no standard origins story: Corbet makes the intriguing structural choice to tell the boy’s story in three “tantrums”, signposting them with amusingly on-the-nose subtitles – “A sign of things to come” etc… – then proceeding to strip the film of easy connect-the-dots psychology to better reflect both the banality of evil and society’s complicity in allowing it to prosper.

Such a formalistic approach means the film isn’t always dramatically urgent: there are long stretches where little seems to be happening as we witness the little boy – who isn’t named until late in the film (but is played with remarkable poise throughout by newcomer Tom Sweet) – respond to parental neglect, boredom and feelings of isolation with small but increasingly transgressive acts of disobedience that intensify the discomfort of those around him. These lead to ever more disruptive domestic disputes, but the cumulative effect of the film hints at Corbet’s larger purpose. Contrasting these tantrums with the grand designs of the politicians trying to figure out the peace treaties, the film subtly links the complex bureaucracy required to pursue stability between nations with the fostering of certain conditions that allow resentful egotists with dangerous ideas to flourish if we let them. How’s that for relevance this weekend?

Relevance isn’t something that could be ascribed to Meg Ryan’s directorial debut. The antithesis of Corbet’s film, Ithaca (*), which is playing in “Best of the Fest” tomorrow is old-fashioned and lacks any consistent directorial vision from the outset. It’s a turgid coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of the Second World War, and featuring the specious appearance of Tom Hanks in spectral form to give Sleepless in Seattle/You’ve Got Mail fans a one-scene big screen reunion between him and Ryan. She plays Hanks’ widow, a simple farmer who is trying to raise two young sons (and maybe a daughter – it’s not quite clear) in the titular town while a third son (played by Ryan’s own kid Jack Quaid) is off fighting overseas. Ryan’s character is a bit of a head-scratcher: she’s practically somnambulant, letting her toddler wander around town by himself at all hours of the day, yet the recipient of some glowing testimonials about her qualities as a mother.

But the film is mostly concerned with 14-year-old Homer (Alex Neustaedter), whose determination to be the fastest telegram messenger in town is complicated by the fact that the telegrams he’s delivering frequently bear terrible news from the frontlines.

Ryan has no real sense of how to craft a story from behind the camera. She also switches point-of-view and introduces dream sequences and hallucinatory images at odd moments. The stylistic mishmash is jarring to say the least. Even the performances – usually a strong point for actors-turned-directors – are leaden, with only Sam Shepherd’s turn as the town’s drunken chief telegraph operator coming close to conveying the gravitas this wannabe prestige picture is desperately striving to achieve.