Review: The Childhood of a Leader


DIR: Brady Corbet • WRI: Brady Corbet, Mona Fastvold • PRO: Chris Coen, Brady Corbet, Helena Danielsson, Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre, István Major • DOP: Lol Crawley • ED: Dávid Jancsó • DES: Jean-Vincent Puzos • MUS: Scott Walker • CAST: Berenice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Tom Sweet, Stacy Martin, Robert Pattinson, Yolande Moreau and Jacques Boudet

Three chapters, or more precisely ‘tantrums’, from the early life of Prescott (Sweet) a troubled, fiercely intelligent young boy who will grow up to be the fictional ‘leader’ of the title. As the film, begins Prescott, an American, is housing in France with his French mother (Bejo) and American father (Cunningham). They are residing in France while the latter, a US Diplomat, negotiates The Treaty of Versailles on behalf of President Woodrow Wilson following World War 1. Prescott’s first misdemeanour is to be caught throwing stones at parishioners, as the film progresses Prescott’s actions turn ever more sinister as he engages in disturbing mind-games with his parents along with his French teacher (Martin), and his maid (Moureau).

This extraordinary film marks the feature directorial debut of 28-year old American actor Brady Corbet (Funny Games, Melancholia, Simon Killer). It is an utterly singular, evocative and intelligent period piece. Corbet showcases supreme confidence, imagination and cinematic flair as he draws on a myriad of influences from Jean-Paul Sartre to Carl Theodor Dreyer to Michael Haneke, all the while maintaining a striking originality of vision and execution.

The film is brilliantly shot on 35mm by Lol Crawley. The dark, starkly contrasting, often candle-lit imagery sometimes calling to mind John Alcott’s work on Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and also the paintings of Rembrandt. Haneke regular Jean-Vincent Puzo’s production design is a masterpiece of both historical and psychological evocation. Scott Walker’s outstanding score (which was played by a 120 piece-orchestra) is almost a character in the film itself. Corbet too exhibits great formal adventurousness in bold, unusual camera moves and framing.

This is film that offers no answers on its subject matter. Corbet and co-screenwriter Mona Fastvold aren’t interested in constructing a specific narrative around which a leader could be better understood but rather paint a mysterious picture in which the viewer has to fill in the gaps. The film constantly subverts one’s expectations of what they think may prove a concrete turning point in turning Prescott into the leader he is set to become. The film teases the audience with clues and foreboding hints at the causes of the malaise, but never offers anything concrete or literal, instead creating a rich allegorical framework from which an endless array of fascinating questions are raised as to how power may be intermingled with issues such as history, education, class, family, gender, sexuality and ultimately the impossibility of human communication and understanding. Corbet concedes that there is no way of resolving something as complex and unknowable as that of how a fascist leader may be formed. This a mystery in the truest, most terrifying sense. A snapshot character study of an enigmatic, terrifying but also not always unsympathetic character.

Corbet draws an incredible performance out of young debutant Tom Sweet. This is not a one-dimensional or one-note depiction of a misbehaving child but rather a tremendously nuanced turn that exhibits Prescott’s precociousness but also his searing intellect and at times also some vulnerability, The characterisation is not only rich in terms of Prescott but in the adults too. Berenice Bejo – in what may be a career best performance – conveys the duality of a highly educated woman whose potential has been halted by domesticity and who seems torn between duty and desire. She remains steadfast in attempting to keep up appearances of happiness with her exuberantly authoritative, oafish husband but it is clear that she is also deeply unhappy. As the mind games with Prescott progress, it is unclear as to what extent she admires her son’s individuality and burgeoning clout, and to what extent she resents and fears him. Prescott’s relationship with his father, Martin’s teacher and Moreau’s maid are equally murky, with the motivating factors behind the adults’ diverse treatment of the child as complex and mysterious as everything else in this magnificent film.

David Prendeville

95 minutes
16 (See IFCO for details)

The Childhood of a Leader is released 19th August 2016


Related Posts


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *