Brady Corbet’s ambitious period drama examines young evil to mixed results.
From The Omen to last year’s Goodnight Mommy, countless films have utilized the trope of placing a fiendish mind within the seemingly innocent form of a young child. The Childhood of a Leader, in many ways is a continuation of this trend, commencing with a grandly menacing overture before introducing the titular child, Prescott, dressed as an angel for a nativity play. From that moment on, the viewer sits waiting for the ticking clock that is Prescott to erupt and join the ranks of past pint-sized nightmare inducers. Yet, rather than succumb to the instant gratification of the horror genre, director Brady Corbet opts for a much slower burn instead.
The film, co-written by Corbet and Mona Fastvold, takes place in the final months of World War I. Prescott’s father (Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham) is an American diplomat working on finalizing the Treaty of Versailles, who as a result, has forced his wife (The Artist’s Berenice Bejo) and child (Tom Sweet) to relocate to the French countryside. The film itself is structured as a very intimate portrait of Prescott’s struggles with both his authoritative parents and his strange new home. And while the film’s title and foreboding score tell us darkness lies ahead for Prescott, a good deal of the film focuses on his search for affection from both the house’s kindly maid (Yolanda Moreau) to his French teacher (Stacy Martin) who offers him his first glimpse at sexuality. Yet, as his tantrums towards his parents grow worse so too do the consequences as he finds himself on a dark path towards a powerful future.
Among the cast, Bejo does particularly remarkable work offering glimpses of the regret and frustration she feels toward her life of domesticity, while still providing fleeting moments of maternal warmth towards Prescott. Cunningham also makes his distant Father a compelling figure, showing an ineffectual parent unwilling to pull himself away from his political dealings to offer his child attention besides the occasional punishment. The young actor Sweet handles his role admirably, giving glimpses at his emotional struggles, while avoiding the traps of over-acting. However, the film’s greatest achievements fall on the technical side in Lol Crawley’s cinematography (captured on celluloid film) and Jean-Vincent Puzos’ production design. Together they transform the family’s sprawling country house, the film’s primary setting, into a place that feels equal parts ornate and sinister.
While the film is composed of many thoughtful and intriguing elements, it’s hard to say that Childhood adds up to the sum of its parts. The film closes with an act of shocking violence and an intentionally disorienting final sequence, yet doesn’t seem to fully own these bold moments following the slow pace it had previously offered. In many ways these final scenes indicate its inability to decide whether it wants to close as a straight horror film or a more avant-garde exploration of fascism. Though Corbet’s ambitious scope is undeniably admirable for a debut film, his general message seems too muddled to fully satisfy. Ultimately Childhood won’t answer any burning questions about what makes a child become a tyrant or offer much in the way of horror thrills, but it will leave you excited to see what comes next in Corbet’s directing career.