Film reviews: David Brent | Swallows and Amazons | The Childhood of a Leader
David Brent's foibles and shortcomings are exposed in pitiless, toe-curling fashion as Ricky Gervais delights in letting his comic creation have a misguided tilt at rock'n' roll glory
David Brent: Life on the Road (15) | Rating: ****
Swallows and Amazons (U) | Rating: ***
The Childhood of a Leader (12A) | Rating: ****
David Brent is the type of cautionary comic creation that reflects and then amplifies our most delusional and unfortunate moments with such pinpoint accuracy that Ricky Gervais – like Steve Coogan with Alan Partridge – could conceivably play him intermittently for the rest of his career and never run out of material. Whether the character could withstand another showcase as big as David Brent: Life on the Road is another matter, but in terms of making the jump from TV to film, Brent’s transition to the big screen is far smoother than that of many recent British sitcom characters, largely because Gervais – who also wrote and directed the film – understands that a movie can be just as painfully intimate as a TV show and so hasn’t tried to scale things up by sending him to a foreign country for some faux production value. Instead, in catching us up with Brent 13 years after being fired from Wernham-Hogg, he sticks mostly to the realism of the show, imagining Brent as a sales rep still dreaming about being a rock star and still digging himself into a hole with every try-hard attempt to make people like him.
This time round he’s digging himself into a financial hole as well, cashing in various pensions to fund a tour for his band, the perfectly awful Foregone Conclusion, in the hope of landing a record deal and finally making it. In an age in which the record industry – or at least the record industry as Brent clearly imagines it – has all but collapsed, this strategy is as tragic as the Jeremy Clarkson-esque brown leather jacket he wears on his days off. Reluctantly along for the ride is a younger rapper by the name of Dom Johnson (played by rapper-turned-comic Ben Bailey), who, we’re told, Brent started off managing, but who has now found himself enveloped into Brent’s band as part of a 50-something’s misguided bid for credibility. Dom’s race inevitably becomes a source of some of the film’s most toe-curling moments, and Brent’s songs – written by Gervais – are amusing in horrifying ways precisely because they’re only a step or two away from being blandly passable radio filler.
The film doesn’t really do anything radical here; it sticks to the mock-doc format perfected by This is Spinal Tap, but it’s funny in that cringe-inducing laugh-or-cry way that made The Office such a great show. There are a couple of naff moments that feel a little out of step with the rest of the film (the battle of the bands competition in the final third in particular), but while it’d be easy to knock the film as it edges into more sentimental territory towards the end, at this stage in the character’s life, it actually feels well-earned. Brent is never going to get his big break, but he deserves the occasional little break and that’s what Gervais gives him here.
Now that the schools have gone back, it seems an odd time to be releasing a new film version of Swallows and Amazons in Scottish cinemas given that Arthur Ransome’s 1930 children’s classic is basically an ode to the adventurous possibilities of the summer holidays. Nevertheless, this film version – directed by TV veteran Phillipa Lowthorpe and adapted by Andrea Gibb – serves as a gentle reminder of the value of allowing children to get outside and explore instead of being mollycoddled by fearful parents. Kelly Macdonald stars as mother to the Walker brood, whose annual holiday to the Lake District is a source of plentiful outdoors hi-jinks for her children as they spend the long summer days and nights camping out and sailing their dinghies. The film adds an espionage subplot that feels a little underpowered to really provide the intended narrative oomph, danger or excitement, but in an age in which the teen heroes and heroines of YA adaptations are routinely given ridiculously proficient combat skills, there’s something nice about watching kids mucking about and learning basic wilderness skills.
Twenty-seven-year-old American actor Brady Corbet makes an auspicious directorial debut with The Childhood of a Leader. 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 (played by Tom Sweet) is the son of a US diplomat (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. 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” and, by contrasting his increasingly disruptive and transgressive behaviour 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.