Directed by actor Brady Corbet (rhymes with sorbet) The Childhood of a Leader explores the growing-up of a would-be dictator during the six months leading up to the Treaty of Versailles. Of the authoritarian parents ‘the father’ (Liam Cunningham) works under Woodrow Wilson and has relocated the family to rural France as the Paris peace talks get underway, and ‘the mother’ remains at home. Nine year old Prescott adjusts to the new life by testing out his influence over others and wearing white smocks.
The film is structured around Prescott’s tantrum’s (I, II & III), as though each pinpoints a moment of change in the boy. Played brilliantly by complete newcomer Tom Sweet, whose androgynous shoulder-length hair is a source of both power and tension, he can be charming and stoic and full of intense rage. Even his mouth movements are weird. He is introduced to us as the angel Gabriel in the local church’s nativity play, but soon after the rehearsal ends he runs into the trees and starts throwing rocks at soldiers; there is malice under the wings.
The isolated environment of country mansion and the surrounding village scenes lend the film an atmosphere not unlike a 19th-century Russian novel, a kind of family drama with a backdrop of peasants and maids. The colours are so muted, everyone dresses in fur-lined black coats and the darkness of the varnished wood in natural light pervades everything. It is unsurprising to learn that it’s based on a Jean-Paul Sartre short story; the dialogue is sparse and every scene feels significant (not to mention ominous, emphasised by Scott Walker’s staccato double bass score). Robert Pattinson is also beguiling as Charles, a colleague of the father, and fans of his earlier work should welcome him as a different beast.
Does The Childhood of a Leader suggest that better parenting could have prevented Prescott’s rise to dictatorship? Or was it inevitable? Nature or nurture? The parents are privileged and busy, delegating their duties to housemaids and tutors, but this may not matter. Tom Sweet’s performance is brooding and strange, the implication being that his hunger for power is innate, and has been festering inside him all along. A fascinating and hypnotic debut.