At twenty-seven, Brady Corbet is already a veteran of the industry. An actor since the age of seven, Corbet broke through at fifteen with his performance in Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (2003). Since then Corbet has become a familiar face in indie cinema through his roles in Mysterious Skin (2004), Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), and Melancholia (2011). Working with his partner Mona Fastvold, Corbet co-wrote the surprise Sundance hit The Sleepwalker (2014) before embarking on his directorial debut, for which he picked up the Best Debut Film and Best Director awards at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
The Childhood of a Leader centres on Prescott (Tom Sweet), a seven-year-old American boy living in a French village in the aftermath of World War I. Prescott’s diplomat father (Liam Cunningham) is working on the creation of the Treaty of Versailles while Prescott’s deeply religious mother (Bérénice Bejo) struggles to deal with the child’s worsening behaviour. Prescott employs increasingly sophisticated stratagems in his growing defiance of parental authority, using the weakness and corruption of the adults around him to his advantage. As Prescott’s tantrums escalate, the strains in the family are brought into sharp relief.
A mood of presentiment and historical import prevails in The Childhood of a Leader like few other films made this century. Corbet and Fastvold fashion a grim context within which to frame the child’s increasingly obstreperous behaviour. Corbet and Fastvold have disavowed the dominant flippancy and solipsism of so much indie filmmaking — of which Corbet has been so critical — in favour of twentieth century European solemnity, and the results are astounding. Debut films so often bear the marks of a director’s influences, but The Childhood of a Leader has few clear antecedents. Corbet has invoked Dreyer and Cassavetes, and one can also see flickers of Michael Haneke — with whom Corbet worked on his US remake of Funny Games (2007) — in its frosty opulence, particularly of Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009).
But The Childhood of a Leader exists on its own terms. Lol Crawley’s stunning 35mm photography uses natural light and candlelight to create a sensation of darkness slowly encroaching and enveloping the frame, managing to be simultaneously sensuous and unsettling. Also integral to the film’s success is its score from the legendary Scott Walker. Using a 120-piece orchestra, Walker creates a bracing, atonal, guttural sonic barrage which carries over many elements from his recent studio output and stands alongside Jonny Greenwood’s work on There Will Be Blood (2007) in its jagged majesty.
Having been a child actor himself, Corbet is uniquely positioned to handle Sweet, whose performance is preternaturally good, showing the novice actor to have impeccable instincts, and outlining Corbet’s skilful guidance through this complex role. Bejo steps into the shoes vacated by Juliette Binoche – who left the project during its lengthy gestation — with great authority, evincing the spiritual strain of a mother who instinctively knows what she has wrought upon the world. Cunningham is baleful as the remote father, a man buffeted on the winds of history who shares none of his pious wife’s certainty, while Robert Pattinson’s small but significant role further underlines his maturation into a fine character actor.
In Prescott, Corbet and Fastvold have created an historical composite, existing in a parallel history which is ‘metaphysically linked’ to the events of the twentieth century, revealing itself in increments and culminating in a dizzying, bravura climax. Using the Jean-Paul Sartre short story of the same name and Margaret MacMillan’s book Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World as the basis for their creation, we see echoes of various twentieth century tyrants in Prescott’s growing megalomania and isolation. Prescott is the errant spirit of a Europe which is still reeling at the realisation of its own barbarity, railing against a morally bankrupt establishment. The Childhood of a Leader is a film rich with biblical and historical symbolism, as well as relevance to the predicament of contemporary Europe.
The Childhood of a Leader is a chilling character piece which delves into the roots of the impulse we have come to understand as ‘evil’. It poses the question: are dictators created or made? It signals the emergence of a bold new voice, one whose artistic components are already firmly in place, achieving naturalism without sacrificing its painterly aesthetic. The Childhood of a Leader will stand among the finest debut features ever made. One is left awestruck by Corbet’s sheer ambition, which calls to mind another wunderkind whose debut film wowed the world: Orson Welles. And there is no higher praise to pay a filmmaker.
Follow Daniel Palmer on Twitter at @mrdmpalmer.