Brady Corbet’s directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader is in part based on Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story The Childhood of a Leader and John Fowles’s 1965 novel The Magus. One of the most stylistic and memorable films of the year, The Childhood of a Leader is the story of the childhood of a post World War I facist leader.
The film tells the story of Prescott, the boy (an incredible performance from Tom Sweet, which really gets under the skin of the audience), his mother (Bérénice Bejo), father (Liam Cunningham) and teacher (Stacy Martin) as well as those around the family including Charles (Robert Pattinson, who also cleverly has a second role towards the end of the film as well). At the end of the First World War, an American family are living in France as the father is working for the US government on the Treaty of Versailles – he works directly with the President although he rarely gets an audience with him. The young American boy, Prescott is unfamiliar with this new world as well as many of the people that he has to deal with on a day to day basis. In between trying to learn the language and deal with the tension in his family, Prescott doesn’t seem to be able to find a single constant in his life – nothing seems sacred or safe. But what he ends up seeing and hearing and because of the ways in which he is dealt with all feed the birth of a terrifying ego, infused with tinges of evil and foretelling of something horrifying and dreadful to come.
Corbet’s film, which he co-wrote with Mona Fastvold, defies generic expectations and blurs many of the lines that audiences come to expect from historical storytelling – at points it’s a period drama, at others a family drama, for much it’s an intense mystery but there are also psychological and horror elements in there. But there is never a moment where the story feels drawn out or that genre is being relied upon to bring something about – instead between the fascinating script and the brilliant acting, the story comes to life easily and by the end, the audience really feel like they’ve experienced something special and important.
The film also looks, feels and sounds incredible – from huge sweeping landscapes, to the detail of the interior locations, the tall ceilings, the costuming and the sweeping, haunting orchestral score from Scott Walker. The film feels vital and contemporary at the same time as referencing another generation of filmmaking – something long gone, which we don’t see anymore. A whole host of homages from the silent era to European war time filmmaking to today’s clean corners and postmodern recognition. Corbet’s film is gothic, big and tense throughout – capturing the audience from the very first shot and not letting go until the film’s last shot has finished lingering.
This is a vast, sweeping film and a massive undertaking for a first time filmmaker but clearly Corbet knows what he is doing and is certainly a directorial talent to watch out for in the future.