Monday 15 August 2016

What just happened?: "The Childhood of a Leader"

You will likely know the actor Brady Corbet's face, if not his name. He was one of those two blank young Americans wreaking havoc on the household of Tim Roth and Naomi Watts in Michael Haneke's English-language remake of Funny Games, and has popped up in some unlikely places over the subsequent decade: as another sociopath, this time on the loose in Paris, in Antonio Campos's Simon Killer, lending support to a pregnant Greta Gerwig among the what-might-have-beens of Mia Hansen-Løve's Eden. Clearly, Corbet has been watching and waiting, making contacts and taking notes; now, with his ambitious and brooding directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader, he strikes.

We're here transported back to darkest Europe in that brief respite between World Wars One and Two; more specifically, to the country home of a diplomat in the Wilson administration (Liam Cunningham) and his German wife (Bérénice Bejo). While this stern patriarch is out dividing up the continent in his role among those writing the Treaty of Versailles, mama's energies are devoted to curbing the excesses of the couple's tearaway offspring Prescott (Tom Sweet), a ringlet-haired brat first seen lobbing rocks at the crowd emerging from a nativity, and thereafter making himself the centre of the universe in a series of chaptered tantrums: staring down the local priest, groping his tutor (Stacy Martin), interrupting dad's work by marching into the study naked, and eventually far worse besides.

It's soon clear that Prescott isn't just a bad seed, but a deeply symbolic presence. Just as Oskar, the manchild protagonist of Günter Grass's (and Volker Schlöndorff's) The Tin Drum stood for the arrested development that led to the Nazification of Germany, so this lad is a demon child, an embodiment of all those forces (and lapses of parenting) that led to the ghettos and the camps, more likely to wage war than make peace if he feels he's not getting his own way. Corbett and co-writer Mona Fastvold set out plenty of reasons for the boy to feel slighted. Forced to apologise for his rock-throwing, Prescott is mistaken for a girl by one parishioner; his tutor, dutifully imposing a foreign language on him, slaps him after he puts his hand on her breast. 

That privilege, as far as we can tell, is reserved for the boy's straying father, so it's no surprise the kid should grow up so agitated and confused - if not a Hitler-in-waiting, then a Hitler voter-in-waiting. (And history suggests we shouldn't underestimate how much of that demagogue's rise to power was related to a deep-seated need for a father figure.) I'm sure Sweet was an absolute cherub offscreen, and that he remains a credit to his family, but part of the film's grip can be attributed to the way Corbet's camera bears down on him: with his perpetually pursed lips and sunken, sullen eyes, he is the very model of a young man being indulged to the point of insolence, growing altogether too fond of being handed everything to him on a silver platter - the kind of mollycoddling that invariably breeds monsters.

What's around him is historically and psychologically acute, and possessed of a seriousness we don't often see in young actors' directorial debuts; it's also technically audacious. Working within a tightly controlled frame - a choice that immediately distinguishes Childhood from the sweeping majority of period dramas - cinematographer Lol Crawley conjures austerely beautiful tableaux, shadowy images within which some malevolent force or future tragedy seems to lurk; Scott Walker - yes, that Scott Walker - contributes a thundering musique concrète score that rants and raves and suggests what it might be like to be inside the very thrashing guts of history.

Downton lovers - those who prefer their period drama served up like cream tea, on the finest crockery and with a nice plate of biscuits on the side - should obviously approach with considerable caution: Corbet's working not on the front lawns, but deep within the backrooms and backchannels of history, where relations can get fraught and missteps are made, and it's not always so clear how things are going to pan out. (No spoilers, but you should set aside at least ten minutes for post-film what-the-fuck-just-happened? discussion.) This is history that doesn't seek to pat us on the back so much as poke us in the eye - but it's at least as unexpected, and as compelling, as any film you could reasonably pitch as Simon Schama does The Omen.

The Childhood of a Leader opens in selected cinemas from Friday. 

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