Review: The Childhood Of A Leader

Director: Brady Corbet

Stars: Tom Sweet, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin

With The Childhood Of A Leader, actor Brady Corbet transitions to working behind the camera in attention-grabbing style, handing us this first missive like someone throwing down a gauntlet, if only to challenge himself. Though his influences declare themselves loudly, his intentions are clear; he wants a seat at the table with the big names in modern filmmaking. There’s every chance if he carries on like this, and builds upon the work presented, that he’ll get his wish.

His debut feature adapts a short story of Jean-Paul Satre’s, one which paints a stark picture of loveless youth. We’re in France in 1918. A young boy named Prescott (Tom Sweet) sports a girlish bob of golden hair; a cherub-like image which conceals a monster in the making as the title so portentously suggests. He is son to disinclined parents Liam Cunningham and Bérénice Bejo, supervised and schooled at home by downstairs staff and a paid teacher who visits (Stacy Martin). While his father is busy with serious affairs of diplomacy at the end of the Great War, his mother spends much of her time behind closed doors, suffering migraines. Over the course of three highlighted episodes, we are presented Prescott’s willful rebellion and defiance of his guardians, and their conspicuous failure to understand him.

It’s a psychologically complex situation, as Corbet poses the conundrum of where evil sets in during formative years. It’s quite heavily suggested that we arrive too late, as Prescott is introduced pelting his own church congregation with rocks from afar. Reprimands seem to do nothing to deter him from his course, and, if anything, the grown-ups only give away more and more ground as the film progresses. Though not without struggle. This is a mirthless, overtly serious film, presented in dour browns and blacks. It’s heavy going, but the existential conundrum at its core keeps things feeling sporadically electric.

Intriguing as this all is, it’s nearly overshadowed by the grandiose feel of the film’s setting and it’s score. Filmed on location in Hungary, the home in which this all takes place is breathtakingly eerie. The place looks as chilly as the family’s mood with high ceilings that disappear out of view, giving the impression that these spats are taking place in a sort of rotten cathedral. The family is clearly well-to-do, yet live in near ruin; something which amplifies the human pieces missing in their equation. The performances seem stilted also. Particularly Martin, who so impressed previously in Nymphomaniac. Here she looks almost as though she’s being prompted with her lines from off-screen.

The aforementioned score comes, notably, from Scott Walker, acting like Jonny Greenwood to Corbet’s Paul Thomas Anderson (an evident hero). Walker’s music is skittish, sinuous and at times incredibly overblown. His operatic sensibilities are in sync with Corbet’s sense of ambition, but they threaten to overshadow the drama on several occasions. Nevertheless the music is disarming, and how it works with the visuals almost necessitates seeing this one in a cinema for full delirious effect.

There’s a pomposity to the presentation of this perverse kitchen sink drama which signals Corbet’s full-throated ambition to climb the ladder of appreciation. Cinema hasn’t felt quite this self-serious since Darren Aronofsky’s last salvo. Corbet gets away with it though, and The Childhood Of A Leader often feels like the early work of a burgeoning master, even if it’s director hasn’t quite come into his own yet. There are only promising things happening here. Certainly enough to forgive gambits that don’t quite pay off, such as the free-wheeling camerawork that closes the film in a mildly confusing and awkwardly ambiguous epilogue.

It is here that we glimpse Robert Pattinson in the second of two roles, playing The Leader that Prescott becomes. He has a little more to do earlier in the film, seen setting the world to rights over a game of billiards with Liam Cunningham’s Father. Cunningham is as good as he ever is. His presence reminds this viewer of another self-serious contemporary director whose style is kindled in Childhood‘s embers; Steve McQueen.

If the film belongs to anyone in front of the camera, however, it is young Tom Sweet. A triumph in what could so easily have been make-or-break casting. His Prescott is a riveting little puzzle to behold, at once wholly in control of the events he precipitates, yet at the same time seeming as though he’s working them out as he goes, like a young savant using his parents like rats in a maze. Bejo is equally interesting in the Mother role; she condemns Prescott for his actions, yet it seems at times as though she almost respects him for his bad behaviour. It is this macabre mix that carries the film through it’s occasionally meandering two hours.

Corbet recently addressed his passion for film in an eloquent interview with David Jenkins in Little White Lies. He comes across as hot-tempered on the subject, passionate but also considered in his remarks. While he has added a number of memorable performances to modern cinema (Funny GamesMelancholia, Martha Marcy May Marlene to name but a few), one suspects the real fire in this young upstart’s belly is for directing. Sinister, pompous and prone to the occasional stammer it may be, but nevertheless The Childhood Of A Leader suggests he may have found his true calling.

Score:  3.5

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