A chronicle of the childhood of a post-World War I leader.
‘The Childhood of a Leader’ is a bold debut from actor turned director Brady Corbet, a layered parable that mirrors the rise of fascism in Europe after the First World War with the coming of age of a young boy. The film takes place in France shortly after the First World War as the Treaty of Versailles is being prepared, focusing on a high ranking US official (Liam Cunningham) tasked with providing the US’s input. In the manor house they are staying in, he lives with his wife (Berenice Bejo) and their young son, Prescott (Tom Sweet), a troublesome boy who we first see throwing stones at a group of locals. The signing of the Versailles treaty may form the focus of the story and it’s the event in which the narrative is structured around, however it primarily takes a background role to the character study of Prescott.
The film signals its ambition with a striking opening credits sequence that makes terrific use of Scott Walker’s phenomenal score, a feature that elevates the film throughout. Walker’s orchestral score (and the credits sequence by extension) is reminiscent of the kind of music used in films from a bygone era, almost Hitchcockian at times and it creates a dark and immersive atmosphere. Background knowledge of the Versailles treaty is probably useful as it allows you to let the politics sink into the background and your focus to sit squarely on Tom Sweet’s terrific performance in what is essentially the leading role. He’s hypnotic and creepy as the young boy, with his behaviour becoming more and more disturbing as the film goes on (each segment of the film is marked around a different tantrum from Prescott). Setting the film in this time period gives the narrative a curious edge, with a blend of fact and fiction that makes for a compelling viewing experience, particularly in drawing parables with the rise of fascism through the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. In the case of Prescott, the focus is on his dysfunctional relationship with his parents, his awkward and inappropriate behaviour around his nanny (Stacy Martin) and ultimately how his upbringing and background shapes his beliefs into something unsettling and dangerous.
I’ve already mentioned the film’s score which is a vital part of the film’s success, but the cinematography and camerawork play an equal part. The film is crafted in an unusual way, with the use of unconventional musical cues and creeping camerawork more familiar with a horror film than with a drama. That’s part of what makes ‘The Childhood of a Leader’ so captivating and interesting though. The film saves its best until last with a jarring final sequence that feels out of place with what’s gone before, until it’s not and everything makes perfect sense. In many respects I find it difficult to explain why I liked the film so much. It’s not really the narrative, which is often slow and deliberately paced, or even the acting, which beyond Sweet is serviceable but not outstanding. I think what I liked about ‘The Childhood of a Leader’ is it’s brazen boldness, originality and ambition, and the stylistic choices it takes undoubtedly work to create an incredibly effective and immersive experience.
Directed By: Brady Corbet
Starring: Bérénice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Robert Pattinson, Tom Sweet, Yolande Moreau and Jacques Boudet