MY ONLY quarrel with an impressive new film, The Childhood of a Leader (Cert. 12A), is its title: not because it is a giveaway that the boy Prescott (Tom Sweet) will turn into a megalomaniac, but because it constructs a simplistic equation between someone’s disturbed (religious) upbringing and his becoming a totalitarian dictator. Tolstoy, in his Epilogue to War and Peace, foreshadows many sociological theories in disputing that any one individual can change our destiny unless we allow it.
This quibble apart, the film is masterly in its depiction of a child’s development and the way this may manifest itself in adult life. But the film’s real strength lies in portraying the inability of family, Church, and society to hold things together.
It is Christmas 1918. In Paris, the Treaty of Versailles is about to be hammered out. A senior American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) resides with his German wife (Bérénice Bejo) and their son, Prescott, on a country estate near by. We first meet the boy practising in French his part in the parish church’s nativity play. The irony is that he is cast as an angel, one soon to fall from grace, as he pelts stones at departing worshippers. This is never explained, any more than other behavioural issues, including tantrums, or why he insists on having long hair. We are being asked to form our own judgements.
His remote and authoritarian father’s uprooting him from the United States mght have something to do with it. Prescott’s devout but cold mother takes him to apologise to the kindly priest (Jacques Boudet). His failure to have noticed the stone-throwing represents a sleepwalking Church. The priest tells the Christmas congregation: “God does not want to see us just to mourn our own losses, but the losses of our enemy, as well.”
The sermon falls on deaf ears, as far as Prescott’s father is concerned. It compounds the film’s message that poor judgements made a subsequent world war inevitable.
Just as the treaty awarded crippling punishments, so are Prescott’s misdemeanours treated. The family becomes a paradigm of political and religious failure at every level to pursue all that makes for peace and builds up the common life. Prescott discovers that discarding faith and family mores empowers him. When the child is beyond control, his desperate father drags him to church, demanding that the priest make him the way he used to be. It is too late.
The actor Brady Corbet’s directorial debut draws on a Sartre story and Hannah Arendt’s study of totalitarianism. Its visual imagery and sledgehammer soundtrack transform this chilling tale into a morality play. A family friend, Charles (Robert Pattinson), spells it out. Taking the example of Pontius Pilate, he says that it is not a case of one man with the courage to do evil, but that so many have not the courage to be good. We get the leaders we deserve.