The Childhood of a Leader. 2016. Directed by Brady Corbet. Screenplay by Corbet & Mona Fastvold.
Starring Tom Sweet, Robert Pattinson, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Bérénice Bejo, Caroline Boulton, Sophie Lane Curtis, Rebecca Dayan, Luca Bercovici, Yolande Moreau, Scott Alexander Young, Michael Epp, Jeremy Wheeler, & Roderick Hill. FilmTeam/Bow and Arrow Entertainment/Bron Capital Partners.
Not Rated. 115 minutes.
For a long while now I’ve tracked the career of Brady Corbet. It was perhaps Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin where I first truly noticed Corbet and his talent for quality acting; one of those quiet, subdued sort of actors more interested in the internal workings of a character than any melodrama. He’s worked on countless films as a mere supporting actor, though his talent is absolutely worthy of being the lead. When Simon Killer came around I was extremely happy to see him holding that film up by its bootstraps.
I expected much of his sensibilities to crossover into his directorial career eventually. The Childhood of a Leader is one of the more ambitious debuts of any filmmaker in years. Not simply due to the scope of the story, but in the sense that this is a dark, at times morbid rumination on the nature of power, and how the quest towards it can often turn a person into a monster. On top of that it’s a period piece set around the drafting of the Treaty of Versailles around the end of World War I. So in no way is Corbet making anything easily digestible for the viewer. At the same time, this isn’t a pretentious, contrived bit of cinema either. Corbet shows us what’s underneath the actor’s skin. It is the blood and bones of an artist. The story of the film surrounds the Treaty of Versailles and other pieces of history, everything from Bolshevism to the lack of comprehension of what communism and socialism were in reality. However, the tale of the little dictator-to-be is first and foremost a story of family, of upbringing, of the way in which a boy is shaped by not just historical events during his formative years, but also by the day to day life he leads under the influence of domineering parents.
The score is absolutely fantastic, from the mind of Scott Walker (Pola X). Nothing emotes better for the suspense of a film like this better than a properly intense score. With the various pieces, each section of the film goes by with maximum tension. Even right off the top we’re drawn in quick by a frantic arrangement of strings that makes you feel like you’ve stepped into a Bernard Herrmann score. In the darker, quiet scenes everything is so mysterious, eerie. You really feel like this is a horror, despite any of its subject matter or themes. Corbet uses his directorial choices and the music to conjure up a genuine feeling of dread. In the last moments there’s this insane piece of music that spins you around with the camera, as if you’re directly in the midst of this history, in the centre of the crowd being thrashed about. So many of these scenes work well and they’re given such weight because of the combination of excellent imagery with the pounding brass, wailing strings, and so on.
Corbet absolutely has an eye for directing. His aide comes in the form of cinematographer Lol Crawley (45 Years, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom). Using what looks mostly to be natural lighting, Crawley evokes the time period in such vivid beauty. The dark corners of the low lit hallways, bedrooms, offices makes for a nice parallel to the darkness of the character development, as well as the story overall being embedded in the despair coming out of the First World War. Corbet’s directing makes the work of Crawley stand out, and vice versa. I hope to see both of these artists make more stuff that’s challenging, as this film is certainly. The techniques and eye of Crawley are wonderful to watch. Corbet allows us lots of enjoyment by weaving all those images into an altogether delightfully horrific piece of art.
Prescott: “I don‘t believe in praying anymore”
Best of all is the dissection of dictatorship, in a very vague sense. Not that it doesn’t accomplish anything directly. Rather that the vague qualities of the screenplay, its character development tracking the rise of Prescott’s (Tom Sweet) ego into something of megalomaniac proportions as time passes, doesn’t try to lay a ton of exposition on us. This is probably a sticking point for some viewers. They’ll want specifics. They want to see little Hittler, little Benito, someone like those figures. Yet that isn’t what Corbet and Mona Fastvold are trying to do in this film. Yes, at the end there’s a very definitive idea of who they wanted to use as a figurehead for the type of politics Prescott was picking up along the way to his transformation from young sociopath to tyranny; note the hair, the facial hair, the flags and symbols, these all clearly indicate the person in question (click here if you want to spoil yourself). But then you realise that even though that dictator is clearly who Corbet is aiming at, the timelines and the age of Prescott (and obviously his name) do not line up. So again, even with this seemingly definitive answer at the finish, the film is not pointing to a single man.
The basis of this story comes from one of the only short stories philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre ever wrote, right down to the exact same title. Bits and pieces come from that story, though many aspects of Prescott’s life are cobbled together from the childhoods of various mad leaders throughout history. What we’re mainly seeing is the birth of a hideous ego, the development of a scary narcissist whose track in life has all but been predetermined due to his proximity to politics for the better part of his life. While some deride the plot as not having much happen other than act as a view into the tortured childhood of a spoiled child, everything going on around Prescott is building him up into a lad poised for truly bad things. Coupled with the fact he’s a budding sociopath, a young child much too aware of his own blasphemy, the ugliness of his personality shows you a means to his tyrannical end. The most important moment comes when Prescott’s father (Liam Cunningham) finally shows his hypocrisy, being an ambassador working on a peace treaty in public while privately thrashing his own child. Prescott then learns that you can be whatever, whomever you want behind closed doors, as long as the appearances tell a different story; thus is the start of his eventual cult of personality, the case for most of the worst dictators ever to live. There are several poignant, formative moments serving to lead Prescott towards his fate. I think this event with his father makes for the one that has the most impact on Prescott, particularly in regards to his understanding of the boundaries between political and personal life.
Ada: “It‘s going to take time. But you‘ll arrive at where you‘re headed.”
Although there are a few flaws – no first time feature is perfect, even the greatest – The Childhood of a Leader is one of the best debut features from a director that I’ve seen in a long time, if not ever. The plot slowly unfolds beneath the story of the end of World War I, the period afterwards, all shaped through the lens of a supposedly peaceful time. Or at least a time where there was hope for peace. Meanwhile, underneath all that bubbled the rise of a dictator, of a true monster, as is the case in many places. Young Prescott represents the situation many of these horrifying leaders went through coming of age in a time where young people weren’t exactly free to play; they were burdened by coming to terms with both their changing childhood and lives, as well as the upheaval of everything around them politically and socially. Corbet manages to cover a lot of ground in just under two hours. Not only that he instils the picture with the sensibilities of a classic director. I can only hope he makes more of this innovative, ambitious cinema as a director and writer. He challenges the audience with this audacious first feature film. In a time where a lot of people are caught up in remakes, big film franchises, artists like Corbet are much welcomed in my world. I love a bit of fun, but film, words, images, these can help us dig into and understand subjects that elude us. Maybe there are no answers, though I can’t help feeling this sort of psychological approach to the typical films about war (and the human figures which get caught up in it) is something that can foster better discussion than other work that’s getting vomited out into the Hollywood system.