Disclaimer: Brady Corbet’s directorial debut is not, I repeat, is not a biopic. So attempts to identify the “leader” with a real historical person will prove fruitless. Loosely based on Sartre’s short story of the same name, The Childhood of a Leader is a strange mix of History, Terror and Kammerspielfilm.
Prescott (Tom Sweet) is 10 and has temporarily moved from America to rural France with his parents, as his father (Liam Cunningham) is working on the Treaty of Versailles in Paris. As Prescott starts throwing tantrums (the film uses them as chapters), his Mother (Bérénice Bejo) starts growing more and more strict, but the boy seems to quickly understand that, despite the messages around him about peace and co-existence, only violence and anger have real power.
There’s something of Haneke’s White Ribbon to this film, as Tom Sweet, strangely resembling Damien in The Omen, gives a hell of a convincing performance as a spoiled and disturbed brat. His sexual infatuation with his French tutor, as his understanding of the evil inside his own father (who uses violence as the only way to deal with rebellion), never appear out of place. The film’s quiet pace, at odds with the ominous and insistent minimalist soundtrack by Scott Walker, makes for a good artistic choice of representing what happened after the Great War was finished – peace seems to prevail, but darker forces can already be spotted, waiting just under the surface.
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Lol Crawley (Four Lions; 45 Years), there is much to enjoy about The Childhood of a Leader, but it is far from being a perfect film. Its genre ambiguity gets frustrating at times, and the music, though excellent, is many times abused into infusing a sense of urgency into scenes that lack it completely otherwise. If there are moments the device works – as the ending “celebration” is given darker tones by the soundtrack, for example – that is not the case for much of the middle section.
Still, as a first feature from an actor turned director, who also wrote it (together with partner Mona Fastvold), The Childhood of a Leader is very promising. You can already feel a very strong directorial voice behind it, which with experience will be able, we’re sure, to deliver some powerful work. Winner of the Best Debut and Best Director at the 72nd Venice International Film Fest, there is now a chance to check out this forgotten pearl.
The Childhood of a Leader is available in DVD and Blu-ray from 30th January 2017, courtesy of Soda Pictures.