The Childhood of a Leader
Directed by Brady Corbet
Opens July 22
And that little boy grew up to be…? The entire aesthetic package of The Childhood of a Leader arguably constitutes a spoiler, its heavily color-restricted palette and the great Scott Walker’s score, like a chamber quartet being chased by wolves, suggesting stuffy, lofty Old World traditions whipped into the neo-Gothic frenzy of the first half of the 20th century. The child in question, unnamed for much of the movie, is Prescott (Tom Sweet), first glimpsed in angel wings for a church nativity pageant, but soon after found chucking rocks at his fellow parishioners. This remote, willful, strange little boy is an American, relocated to a creaky country estate while his stern father serves on Lansing’s negotiating team at the Paris Peace Conference in the winter of 1918-19, and dynamics of appeasement and punishment are echoed in the “Tantrums” that structure the film, testing the diplomatic strategies of Prescott’s devout, repressed mother (Bérénice Bejo), as well as various domestics. (Around the film’s margins lurks Robert Pattinson, in a role plainly sutured onto the narrative either to set up a twist or secure financial backing for the film, or both.)
The actor Brady Corbet has allowed his all-American good looks to be molded by formidable Euro auteurs like Haneke, von Trier, Östlund and Hansen-Løve. The end credits for his feature directorial debut cite as “references” Jean-Paul Sartre, John Fowles, Robert Musil and Hannah Arendt, giving some idea of the film’s intellectual reach—The Childhood of a Leader has been consciously styled to look worthy of its inspirations. It does: In long, patiently handheld master shots seemingly lit largely with natural light, Lol Crawley’s 35mm cinematography, takes in rich, stern blacks, ghostly whites and a sliver of the spectrum of earth tones, just the ones you’d see after a November frost. Prescott, in his blousy sailor shirts and Renaissance curls, is a compelling, classical camera subject.
Corbet has said that his cowriter and romantic partner, Mona Fastvold, encouraged him to make Childhood of a Leader, a longtime dream project he had set aside as “too big to make as a debut picture.” Though saying so sends a discouraging message to young aspiring artists and supportive lovers ever, he was probably right in the first place: their script struggles to invent dramatic incidents to live up to the scope of the narrative. The first half of the drama, especially, is full of dry, minor-key MFA workshop-type incidents. Prescott is mistaken for a girl; he tries to paw his French tutor’s breast; he’s sent to his room without supper. As if distrustful of the script, Corbet muffles it in layers of somber virtuosity—more than once, he simply holds a candlelit composition as a character stares off into the middle distance—scenes are handsome and minute, beautiful burnished cameos, attempting to make Barry Lyndon out of a molehill.
Yet this strategy holds together surprisingly well. It’s to the film’s credit that, for long passages, The Childhood of a Leader feels more mysterious and nuanced than its central allegory (best expressed as Father disciplines his son, the break of a bone punctuating his mention of Versailles). Political intrigues and domestic dramas are half-finished scenes open-ended about their implications, and the psychology, such as it is, matters less than the lavish, uneasy dead air. Tom Sweet, the young British actor appearing in his first film, is a real talent: pretty as a Victorian family photo, with a genuinely intimidating sullen scowl, and the unnerving opacity of a child with a fully developed interior life. And The Childhood of a Leader’s ending, finally, is the film’s least cautious section, a passage of misconceived but grandiose vision that gives a sense of the operatic, pretentious, compelling filmmaker Corbet will surely become.