Film review: Custody

13 April 2018

An unsettling, powerful, French divorce drama.

This social drama about domestic violence pulls no punches. It’s a French film with subtitles, but don’t let that put you off. The language of fear is universal, and the treatment so terrific you soon won’t notice you’re reading the dialogue.

The film opens with a shot-in-real-time hearing in which a judge has about 20 minutes to determine the fate of a small boy, Julien, and his divorced parents. His mother, Miriam, wants sole custody to protect him from a violent father. Antoine asserts his rights as a much-maligned, caring dad. The judge rules in favour of joint custody, setting in train the ensuing – and increasingly unsettling – chain of events.

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This harrowing, genuinely frightening film is social realism at its best. The stark, stunning cinematography brings a palpable immediacy – you’re right there, in the thick of it. There’s little music in the soundtrack, which adds to the intensity. Instead, you hear just everyday sounds: echoes, car indicators, alarm clocks.

The director, Xavier Legrand, never misses a beat. Definitely one to watch, this is his first feature film, though an earlier short film was Oscar-nominated in 2014 and won several prestigious awards. As the tension mounts, almost unbearably, you’ll be pinned to the back of your seat, barely able to breathe.


Kramer vs. Kramer, this isn’t – the characters are more complex, deeper, darker. Antoine (Denis Ménochet) is an unhappy man who wants to be loved by his family, but they only want to escape his clutches. Menace simmers just below the surface whenever he is on-screen. Miriam (Léa Drucker) subtly underplays her fear, and her combination of quiet strength and fragility are utterly convincing. Their older daughter, Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), exemplifies the way family patterns are all-too-often repeated, running away far too young to start a family of her own.

But their young son, Julien (Thomas Gioria), is in many ways the standout star. He is extraordinarily good as the heartbreaking, ever-watchful-and-waiting little boy, terrified of his father, trying to protect his mother, tiptoeing anxiously through the minefield of dysfunctional family life.

The dénouement, when it finally comes, does not disappoint. This is the very antithesis of a feel-good film. But it’s a raw, powerful, cleverly constructed drama that will linger long in the memory. Not to be missed.

 In cinemas nationwide, April 13

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