Movie Review: The Childhood of a Leader (2016)
“Witness the birth of a terrifying ego”
The Childhood of a Leader (2016)
Director: Brady Corbet
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Stacy Martin, Liam Cunningham
Synopsis: The childhood of a man who becomes a dictator.
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With his long, golden locks and cherubic features, 7-year-old Prescott (Tom Sweeting), the son of a high-ranking American diplomat (Liam Cunningham – Centurion, The Guard) negotiating the drawing up of the Treaty of Versailles, appears to be a perfect little child. We first see him dressed as an angel as he waits to speak his lines in a school play, but once the performance is over, Prescott gathers stones from the railroad track beside the school and proceeds to pelt the departing audience with them. It’s the first of three random acts of defiance which mark the beginning of a journey which will see him grow to become a Stalin-like dictator in Brady Corbet’s bold debut feature, The Childhood of a Leader.
Situated deep in the French countryside, the diplomat’s household, thrums with the kind of tension a child can sense without necessarily understanding. The father’s work means that he is away much of the time, and, when he is home, he shows little affection towards his wife. The important figures in the boy’s life are all women: a pretty young tutor (Stacy Martin – Tale of Tales) who awakens a precocious sexual curiosity in the boy, an elderly French maid (Yolande Moreau – Amelie) who dotes on him, and his beautiful but emotionally remote mother (Berenice Bejo – The Artist), who fails to understand or connect with her son.
Most of the adults in Corbet’s allegorical fable live their lives with sullen detachment, as if their emotions have been worn down to a nub by years of war and the only passion they can feel is a kind of impotent anger that is never addressed or acknowledged. They are an enigma to Prescott, and he to them. His increasingly erratic behavior and willful disobedience sends waves that his parents are powerless to quell rippling through the house. Lol Crawley’s sublime camerawork impassively records it all, finding a rugged, terrible beauty in the war-ravaged house as he tracks the characters through its shadowy corridors. The situation and location often provide the template upon which a horror story is built, and at times The Childhood of a Leader looks and feels like a Gothic horror, but one in which the horror is internalised, tamped down and tightly contained.
The Childhood of a Leader is clearly a labour of love for Corbet, who spent years securing finance for the project. One of the reasons it has now seen the light of day is the participation of Robert Pattinson, a talented actor who, with each role that he accepts, successfully distances himself a little further from teen vampires. Although given leading man status in the credits, Pattinson’s part is small. It’s a pivotal role though, thanks largely to a dazzling final scene which throws light on many earlier scenes which are puzzling until placed in their right context. And yet there is still much that remains ambiguous in The Childhood of a Leader, inviting personal interpretation rather than following a conventional cause-and-effect structure.
(Reviewed 17th August 2016)