The Childhood of a Leader
What a difference 12 years can make. Since managing to escape from the wreckage of 2004’s disastrous big budget Thunderbirds reboot, Brady Corbet has pitched his career firmly at the opposite end of the spectrum, carving out a peculiar niche in doll-faced loners and psychopaths for international auteurs (von Trier, Haneke, Assayas) and American indie darlings (Araki, Durkin) alike. His stark and uncompromising directorial debut wears his eclectic collaborators’ influence firmly on its sleeve, and suggests Corbet has no intention of returning to mainstream cinema any time soon.
The film, loosely inspired by a Sartre short of the same name, applies heavily symbolised dramatic license to documented history to tell the story of a pre-adolescent boy (Thomas Sweet) recently moved to France at the close of the First World War. His father (Game of Thrones’ Ser Davos, Liam Cunningham) is a mid-level diplomat helping President Wilson thrash out the Treaty of Versailles, while his mother (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo) struggles to keep her household in order. A young man named Charles (Robert Pattinson, still atoning for Twilight) pays the occasional visit. As negotiations rattle perilously towards fragile peace, the boy starts playing up big time.
It’s all an allegory of course, an exploration of how monsters are created, how the tremors of war continue long after conflict has ended and how history demonstrates that we refuse to learn from our mistakes. Pre-Nazi Germany is the obvious touchstone, but this could be anywhere. Our “Leader” is never named, the cast is pointedly international and when Liam Cunningham’s Father asks “how long we’ll be here” it’s hard not to see parallels with Vietnam or the Iraq War.
Corbet draws strong performances from all the adult cast, but it’s newcomer Tom Sweet who is the revelation: fragile yet composed, demonic yet sympathetic, making a protagonist that could have been lifted from The Omen feel more like one of Louis Malle’s lost boys. The direction is bold and promising, structuring lingering shots around the crumbling architecture of once grand houses, set to a gloriously aggressive Scott Walker score. It’s all very accomplished, but the movie frequently gets lost in its own self importance. Erratic pacing, particularly in the opening section, prevents any real engagement with the action, though traces of (pitch) black comedy, a chilling moment of physical violence and a ferocious finale do redeem the film somewhat. Much to admire then, but not a lot to love.
The Childhood of a Leader is released nationwide on 19th August 2016.
Watch the trailer for The Childhood of a Leader here: