Starring: Tom Sweet, Robert Pattinson, Stacy Martin, Liam Cunningham, Berenice Bejo
Director: Brady Corbet
Retrospect is a funny old beast. Everyone always knew there was something dodgy about that Geography teacher at school. Gary always looked at me a bit funny. Dissecting the childhood of someone wicked is always the first port of call on the long journey to front room popular psychology island. Pol Pot used to burn earwigs with a magnifying glass. Aha! That explains everything. Well, so did Gary Lineker and Princess Diana probably. And Adolf Hitler was a self-declared vegetarian in his youth. It’s pretty much all rubbish, yet it eternally acts as a fine topic of conversation to resort to during the awkward silences at dinner parties with your new neighbours. The Childhood of a Leader is exactly that; a visual depiction of a fictional future fascist leader. Gnaw on that while extinguishing your crème brulee, Mrs Smith!
Initially Scott Walker’s original orchestral score feels enthralling; a booming sombre discordant affair with nods to Japanese noise monsters Mono and The Omen. Yet the volume is up so bafflingly and terrifyingly loud that the batteries in the remote will need replacing every forty minutes or so due to extensive use of the volume buttons. The music is not the only element Childhood has in common with The Omen; Tom Sweets’s Prescott has a hint of the eerie disquiet of Harvey Stephen’s Damien, the bleached colour saturation is almost identical to Richard Donner’s scare-fest and, like the cinematic basis of every 40 year olds nightmares, almost everything is black; hats, cars, clothes, horses, even Prescott’s sling when he breaks his arm is black.
Where The Childhood of a Leader falls down unfortunately is in its basic premise. Prescott throws some rocks at people, he refuses to eat his food, he plays mind games with his parents, he locks himself in his room. All sound familiar? If so, that’s because you’re a parent. Every single child who has ever stuck jammy toast into a VCR has gone on hunger strike or told daddy that mummy said he could have that last can of Red Bull. That this defiant yet entirely typical child behaviour should be taken as the kindling of a future totalitarian dictator’s belly fire is all just a bit of a reach. Corbet is also making the point that correlation equals causality, which any statistician worth her polynomial trees will tell you is, quite frankly, bollocks.
Bejo plays Prescott’s mother excellently and is the pick of the cast. The Edwardian maternal strictness haggling with the love she has for the son who is slipping away from her is both touching and perfectly executed. Sweet’s performance is trickier to judge; his character feels wooden at times (think Danny Lloyd in The Shining) yet this adds to the sense of his emotional separation from his parents. Whether Sweet was advised to act in this manner, or simply has that fledgling greenness, only he will know. Either way, it works well and gives the perfect level of foreboding to his character.
For all its faults, a generally solid set of performances and curious sub-narratives make The Childhood of a Leader strangely compelling. As a whole it makes very little sense and treads the line of art-house a little too closely at times, yet fabulous art direction and thoughtful character development make it a fair way to kill a couple of hours.
Looking back, maybe retrospect isn’t that funny a beast after all.
6 / 10