Review: THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER, Making of a Monster in Brady Corbet's Accomplished Directorial Debut
An allegorical tale set in the shadow of WWI Europe, The Childhood of a Leader is a very accomplished first feature from 27 year-old American actor Brady Corbet. Considering his face has been showing up in the films of who's who in European arthouse cinema over the years -- Haneke, von Trier, Bonello, Assayas, Hansen-Løve, just to name a few -- this exclusively European production (UK/Hungary/France) seems far less surprising.
The film sees an American diplomat (played by Liam Cunningham) working for President Woodrow Wilson to end the most horrific war that the world has ever experienced. His newly transplanted family consists of an educated, worldly wife (Berenice Bejo, The Artist, The Past) and an effeminate young son (the amazing Tom Sweet), complete with bobcut blond hair, holed up in an old chateau in rural France.
With his parents always busy, the boy is brought up by servants and tutors. In the first segment of the film "A Sign of Things to Come," the boy is seen throwing rocks at the fellow church goers after Christmas mass. His stern, but emotionally distant parents don't know what to make of his violent behavior but are still too preoccupied to do anything solid about it.
The film is divided into the boy's 'tantrums' and builds up to its violent climax. These could be seen as minor outbursts of a normal boy his age, maybe a little more violent and erratic. He paws at the breasts of his French tutor (Stacey Martin, Nymphomaniac) and manipulates a sympathetic old servant (Yolanda Moreau), getting them both fired by his mother. The boy, whose name is revealed toward the end as Prescott, is a bratty, spoiled kid who can be seen as a result of bad parenting or Devil Incarnate, like Damien in the Omen movies.
Despite its allusions to the political dictators of the past, Corbet and cowriter Mona Fastvold set the film and the boy's age somewhat removed from the rise of Fascism and Bolshevism in order to not to make it an overtly obvious biography of someone in particular.
You can tell that young Corbet takes a lot from Michael Haneke in terms of theme and stoic presentation. Cinematically speaking, the film is an impressive feat: Lol Crawley (45 Years, Here), director of photography, is responsible for the seriously underexposed cinematography (practically lit interiors) and Scott Walker's stirring string score dominate the film's dark, jarring mood, comparable in its greatness to Jonny Greenwood's blood-pumping There Will Be Blood soundtrack.
There are many fine small moments that wink at immoral adults who surround Prescott. It seems that there are some amorous relationships occurring in the father and the tutor and mother and the family friend in the form of an expat (Robert Pattinson). He also hints that neither parent wanted Prescott in the first place: mother never wanted to be a housewife, father wanted a daughter.
Tonally restrained yet vigorously formalist, Corbet's directing debut definitely doesn't feel like the work of a first-time filmmaker. Corbet also gets uniformly subdued performances from the veteran actors involved. Bearded Robert Pattinson does a fine job playing a double role in two of the film's most enigmatic characters.
But The Childhood of a Leader owes big to its young star Tom Sweet. As a wide eyed, bratty kid, his brave performance alone will cause a string of nature vs nurture debates in the minds of many audience members long after leaving the theater.
After winning the Best Director and Best Debut Prizes at the Venice International Film Festival - Horizons, The Childhood of a Leader had its New York debut at BAMcinemaFest and will open theatrically in New York on Friday, July 22, as well as on VoD, before rolling out nationally.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com