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This chilling fable about the rise of fascism in the 20th Century tells the story of a young American boy living in France in 1918 whose father is working for the US government on the creation of the Treaty of Versailles. What he witnesses helps to mould his beliefs - and we witness the birth of a terrifying ego. Loosely inspired by the early childhood experiences of many of the great dictators of the 20th Century and infused with the same sense of dread as The Others and The Omen, The Childhood of a Leader is an ominous portrait of emerging evil. Written by
Ambitious, with a memorable soundtrack and twist ending, but little re-watch value once one already knows the twist
Brady Corbet's 2015 film, THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER, the young actor's debut as a director, bills itself as the story of a little boy who eventually grows up to be a fascist leader. As the film opens we are introduced to Prescott (Tom Sweet), who is wearing angel wings as he rehearses for a Christmas pageant, but is clearly our demon spawn protagonist: simply directing the child to never smile was enough for the filmmaker to underscore how the boy's a bit warped.
Prescott has been brought to France in the immediate aftermath of World War I. His cold, strict father (Liam Cunningham) is an American diplomat helping draft the Versailles peace treaty. The boy and his French-born mother (Bérénice Bejo) stay in a manor house in a small town. The film is divided into three "tantrums" where Prescott unleashes violence on those around him, all played out against the backdrop of vicious diplomatic negotiations where the victorious Allies seek to harshly punish the loser Germany -- a humiliation traditionally blamed for the rise of Hitler and other fascist demagogues. Besides the vindictiveness being shown on the international scale among diplomats and men of state, Prescott is also confronted by intrigues within his own home: his father's affair with his governess (Stacy Martin), and his mother's mysterious relationship with his father's friend Charles (Robert Pattinson). Add to this appalling class divisions that make the family masters of an enormous home and the local peasants merely their servants, and there's plenty of cause to lose faith in noble ideals and justice.
My interest was originally drawn to this film because its score was supplied by Scott Walker, who started out as a 1960s crooner and gradually became one of the most intense avant-garde pop artists around. Walker's score, purely instrumental (you won't hear his famous voice here) consists of intimidating martial passages for full orchestra and atonal string threnodies. I was initially sceptical that this would work, as I haven't warmed to Walker's earlier purely instrumental work, and I thought his modernist style might clash with the early 20th-century setting. In fact, Walker's score is excellent, boosting the intensity of the action. Lol Crawley's camera work is initially restrained but given free rein as the film reaches its climax, making for some memorable shots.
The film makes, I think, an interesting point about people who grow up to be evil in that, even though we are shown various traumatic childhood experiences and cruel or neglectful parenting that we can point to and say "That's what did it", they nonetheless remain a mystery. Prescott's a black box, we are never sure how exactly the events of childhood are processed in his mind so that we end up with the stunning reveal that we ultimately get. Audiences can expect to see the eventual rise of a fascist leader because this was repeatedly underlined in the film's publicity, but Corbet throws a curveball that makes for a shocking twist ending.
But my rating for this film eventually had to account for the film's diminishing appeal once one has already seen the twist: there isn't much re-watch value here, as the slow pacing and invariable sombreness of the film grates once it is no longer rewarded by the final jump into action and revelation. And while I love Scott Walker's work, apparently some viewers will consider the music a bad thing. I do take issue, however, with those who want to label A CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER "pretentious". If this film is to some degree a failure, it is nonetheless a noble one because Corbet dreamt of an epic scope and a highly original story in spite of the limited means available to him for his first effort as a director.
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