Brady Corbet has been acting since he was a child, and in that time has worked with a handful of innovative filmmakers from all corners of the planet, never confining himself to one particular role, with an eclectic, creative range of projects. He’s evidently brought that with him into his first deviation into the world of filmmaking, as The Childhood of a Leader is a truly indelible, resourceful debut, that you certainly won’t forget in a hurry.
Though a completely fictional account, The Childhood of a Leader is steeped in socio-political context and a realism that derives from several other tyrants that have lived across the past two centuries. This is not a biopic which allowed Corbet – also on screenwriting duties – the freedom to borrow and be inspired by several accounts, as we delve into the childhood of a future fascist dictator. Set in 1918 we meet Prescott (Tom Sweet), an American raised in Paris, to his beleaguered mother (Berenice Bejo) and father (Liam Cunningham), the latter working for the government on the Treaty of Versailles. We watch as this troubled soul is ominously moulded into the egotistical, evil adult he eventually becomes.
The Childhood of a Leader thrives on a truly fascinating premise, as often you do wonder what made Adolf Hitler so evil? What was Saddam Hussein like as a child? You forget that people like this were once a child, dependable on adults, vulnerable, innocent and pure, just as we all were. Corbet is clever not to make any bold statement about parenting, or even divulging in the nature versus nurture debate, as he lingers, studiously scrutinising over a whole myriad of factors that could make someone so evil in later life. It’s clever too, as it’s all the small, subtle and seemingly inconsequential moments. It doesn’t have to be huge traumatic events that trigger or mould these characters, it can be the most innocuous of situations – they all make a difference. The performances are strong, with a fine cameo from Robert Pattinson, who continues to make such interesting projects post-Twilight, while Sweet stands out in the lead role. There’s a certain mischievous sparkle in his eyes, and a darkness that exists, but he remains quite fragile in parts too, serving to remind us, persistently, that he’s just a kid.
The Scott Walker score is remarkable too, and plays such a huge factor in this film – and marks a title that is simply so provocative and intriguing. Ultimately, what transpires is a film that is simply impossible not to admire, even if you don’t particularly like it.