The Childhood of a Leader is harsh and hypnotic, but fails to stick the landing
Opening with Scott Walker’s shrieking strings and breathless newsreel footage of World War I leaders, Brady Corbet’s directorial debut stakes its claim early on as a nightmarish historical drama. Telling the story of Prescott (Tom Sweet, the most disturbing on-screen child since Damien in The Omen), a young boy living in France during the Treaty of Versaille’s creation, The Childhood of a Leader is often fascinating, but never quite reaches its potential.
For his debut feature, Corbet has secured an amazingly talented cast and crew, and they all deliver. The highlight of the film is Lol Crawley’s cinematography, which resembles everything from Barry Lyndon to Nosferatu; last seen shooting Oscar-nominee 45 Years, Crawley keeps getting better with each film. Given his acting background, it’s no surprise to learn Corbet is a great actor’s director. Along with Sweet, who is remarkable for his age and inexperience, The Childhood of a Leader features a terrific performance from Bérénice Bejo, as well as subtly chilling acting from Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham and a rather strange cameo from Robert Pattinson.
Corbet creates a disturbingly harsh and cold atmosphere reminiscent of previous collaborators Michael Haneke and Antonio Campos; not so much emotionally repressed as entirely devoid of love and joy. Mostly unfolding in the family’s haunting, empty mansion, much of the film consists of Sweet’s future leader interacting with his impatient Mother (Bejo), his kindly maid (Yolande Moreau), and a French tutor (Stacey Martin) he nurses an infatuation for. Do these women hold the key to Prescott’s vile mood swings and confused antagonisms? Each character has an important scene with the boy, but is it Bejo’s punishment, Moreau’s dismissal, or Martin’s interaction with Prescott’s father that has the biggest effect on him? Corbet raises lots of questions, but gives us frustratingly little in the way of answers.
Where The Childhood of a Leader falters is in its confused sense of genre, and its arthouse pretensions. Most interesting as intense psychodrama, Corbet slows the pace down to a halt every time he gets interested in making a period drama, spending at least two scenes too many on the creation of the Treaty. Though the title suggests lofty ambitions, the actual content seems a little slight to need a two-hour runtime, making it even more frustrating when the climax provides little resolution or resonance. Closing with a disturbingly ambiguous scene which makes us question everything we’ve seen, The Childhood of a Leader’s finale has proved divisive. It’s a disappointingly sudden end to proceedings, but does at least raise some interesting questions.
Too slow and deliberately impenetrable for most tastes, The Childhood of a Leader is an arthouse film through and through. Awards worthy cinematography and very interesting performances, particularly from ten-year-old Sweet, keep things engaging through even the slowest scenes, but Brady Corbet’s debut is a little too focused on its harsh tone and confounding narrative to ever truly satisfy.
By Harry J. Ford
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