The Childhood of a Leader,2015.
Directed by Brady Corbet.
Starring Berenice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Tom Sweet, Robert Pattinson and Stacy Martin.
Against the backdrop of the end of World War I, a young boy is growing up in a shabby mansion in the French countryside. His American father is heavily involved in peace treaty negotiations and frequently absent. The boy cuts a solitary figure, with no friends apart from the family’s doting, elderly maid. He’s also a troublesome child and his behaviour starts to become more difficult and more extreme.
It’s a film that immediately begs a question. Which leader? That assumes first time director Brady Corbet had a real one in mind to start with. He’s on record as saying it’s not Hitler but, as for the answer, you’ll need to see the film and stick with it right to the very final scene. That won’t mean a massive amount of effort, because The Childhood of a Leader is a fascinating piece of cinema which demands your attention, especially when it comes to solving its deeply buried puzzle.
The boy at the centre of the film is the unnerving Prescott (an impressive Tom Sweet), who is far too knowing for his years and looks at people with an unflinchingly cold stare. It’s almost like watching an updated version of The Omen. And his otherworldliness is made even more unsettling by his long hair and shirt with its massive lace collar. It all makes him look like the little boy in the famous Millais painting. As a result, he’s frequently mistaken for a girl, and that inevitably sparks a show of temper.
But the boy is only one reason for the sense of foreboding and menace that hangs over the film like a black cloud. There’s the gloomy, candlelit interiors with their fuzzy light and dark wood: the main rooms are huge, dwarfing their occupants and making them look insignificant. And there’s the score by Scott Walker – yes, the Scott Walker – which is discordant and loud yet, strangely, a remarkably good match for what’s happening on-screen.
As his behaviour deteriorates and culminates in separate showdowns with both father (Liam Cunningham) and mother (Berenice Bejo), Prescott looks like a monster in the making. But the film isn’t just about his troubled upbringing. The final scene reveals that it’s just as much about the rise of fascism as it is a domestic story. The final moments, with their imposing buildings and red banners, is chaotic, close to manic, in its camerawork so that you almost wish it would stop. Among the crowds is a solitary little girl observing it all, wearing a worldly wise expression that could have belonged to Prescott himself. Then our attention switches to the leader emerging from his limousine. A face we recognize.
The Childhood of a Leader is dark and enigmatic, a film that fascinates, teases and never fails to absorb. Chilling and with a sense of dread that usually goes with horror movies, it’s hard to categorise. Which makes it close to being in a class of its own.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★