What is it that makes a person become a ruthless leader? Is it a traumatising experience in their adult years? Or is it something that is instilled in them in their childhood? Historians have argued over what makes a person hunger for power for many years, and their answers can differ greatly. But Brady Corbet hopes to provide his own answer to the question in his directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader.
Starring Liam Cunningham, Berenice Bejo, Robert Pattinson, and newcomer Tom Sweet, the film is set in the aftermath of the First World War during the creation of the Treaty of Versailles and focuses on the tumultuous adolescence of Cunningham and Bejo’s son. Presented in chapters, much like one of Tarantino’s many films, The Childhood of a Leader presents three tantrums during the treaty’s setup which, apparently, set the boy down the path of tyranny.
As his family become increasingly preoccupied with their own troubles and leave the boy to his devices, his attitude worsens and he becomes more daring. First starting out by throwing rocks at his church’s congregation, the boy acts out in ever more alarming ways: sexually assaulting his French teacher, walking around naked when referred to as a girl (but refusing to cut his long hair to stop the assumptions), and locking himself in his room. These incidents all then culminate in a reprehensible event that we can’t possibly reveal. The boy is only named once in the entire film (Prescott), and perhaps this highlights the chilling idea that anyone can become a dictator if pushed.
One can’t help but feel that if Prescott’s parents had disciplined their son, or just given him the time of day he wanted, then his mood swings wouldn’t have gotten so out of control. It’s the age-old question of nature versus nurture, was he always destined to be a vicious ruler or was it his parents’ lack of interest in him that steered him towards that endgame? For the most part Prescott just seems like an average child acting up, and that’s a problem. If it wasn’t for the film’s title it wouldn’t be obvious that the boy would rule a tyrannical regime, he just seems like a brat. Even if showing that anyone is capable of becoming a dictator is the point of Corbet’s film, it does mean that it drags on at a snail’s pace with little guiding its narrative.
That’s not to say that the actors don’t make the most of the situation they are given. The highlight of the film is, of course, its young lead Tom Sweet. He is able to present the inner-rage of an abandoned child with ease, and his interactions with his family are often laced with anger. His irritation comes to the surface like a kettle ready to boil, and Sweet handles the nuances of the role well. Bejo and Cunningham are decent counterparts to the boy, and are able to give his performance more depth as they try and fail to control him. Interestingly, Robert Pattinson plays two roles in the film: Charles, a friend of the family, and Prescott in his adult years. What this implies is quite intriguing, but this isn’t the only thing that is hidden under the surface.
Since the film is told primarily from the child’s point of view, and this means that we are only given small hints of deceit and betrayal from his parents. From his father’s intimate conversations with Prescott’s French teacher, to the looks exchanged by his mother and Charles, things are implied at but never confirmed so we get only a minimal understanding of the problems within the household.
One other thing that is of note in The Childhood of a Leader is the intensely chilling score composed by Scott Walker. It’s powerful and unnerving, sending the mind into a frenzy whenever it takes over. Given the film’s slow pace, it is often the music that maintains some momentum. That being said, the score also tends to overpower the narrative, suggesting something should be intense when it isn’t, or even completely taking control in the film’s final stomach-churning moments.
When thinking about tyrannical leaders in Europe there is one in particular that comes to mind, but it is not possible to compare Prescott to him. The film is, in fact, based around the early life of Italy’s fascist leader Mussolini, as well as Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. The boy’s first tantrum is actually taken directly from Mussolini’s childhood, and it provides an interesting contrast. Corbet, and co-writer Mona Fastvold, have tried to give some insight into the effect that one’s family and external factors can have on a person, shaping them into a cruel leader. It would have been interesting to see how Prescott went from being a child to a leader, but we aren’t given the chance to see that in-between. One can’t help but feel that there could have been more to Prescott’s rise than his sociopathic development as a child.
Written by Roxy Simons
All photos © Bow and Arrow Entertainment