At the end of the World War I, an American diplomat and his family take up residence in a chateau just outside of Paris. The patriarch is an important adviser to the American secretary of state and has come to France to oversee the formation of what will become the Treaty of Versailles. The Childhood of a Leader dips in and out of the father’s story, as the focus of the film stays mostly with his troubled nine-year-old son.
Immediately the boy stirs trouble by throwing rocks at men standing outside the village church. This lashing out sets up the film’s structure as it is split into three acts, beginning with “Tantrums I” and followed by tantrums II and III. The directorial debut of Brady Corbett (who co-wrote the screenplay with wife Mona Fastvold) is a genre-bending look into the domestic life of a rich and politically active family. It’s part horror movie, part mystery, but mostly a study of the family dynamic. While father is away from home, his wife must deal with their unruly son, who wages a war of his own. Young Prescott (played with sociopathic spookiness by Tom Sweet) acts out as a way to determine who he can easily manipulate. He eventually learns how to control whomever doesn’t bend to his will; this is the story of a sociopath learning his trade.
The acting is superb. Liam Cunningham of Game of Thrones fame takes on the persona of a turn-of-the-century New England upper-class man that feels like he just stepped out of an old movie from the 1930s. Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) plays the French trophy wife who keeps both husband and child at a distance; there are layers to her portrayal of a woman who seems out of place even among her own family. While Robert Pattinson is featured in most of the promotional materials, be warned: he has less than five minutes of screen time, if even that.
Among the qualities to commend this film is the musical score by Scott Walker. In the opening shot, a conductor can be heard addressing the orchestra; the end result feels like the music is playing inside the theater, which adds to the effect of making the film feel like an early 1960s movie with a road show score. Complementing this aesthetic, cinematographer Lol Crawley’s deep focus shots are reminiscent of Citizen Kane, which was surely a reference point and inspiration for this film.
Beautifully crafted in old-school filmmaking, The Childhood of a Leader will appeal to those history buffs looking for a psychological examination of the personality type that is capable of growing into a fascist dictator. A final thought, and something viewers of this film might want to consider, is how young Prescott’s tantrums eerily mirror those of a certain someone currently running for the highest office in the United States.