Shot in dim hallways with the leads often with their backs to the camera, The Childhood of a Leader is one of the year’s least ingratiating pictures. Although based on Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story, it’s as indifferent to text as Woodrow Wilson was to diplomatic niceties. Mentioning the twenty-eighth president is no accident: Brady Corbet has chosen neither a relationship drama nor a college comedy for a directing debut. The whey-faced actor from Thirteen and Mysterious Skin has made a chamber drama weighted by history, and if Childhood of a Leader remains at the namedropping level instead of a picture that examines its ideas, it nevertheless remains a worthwhile movie. Corbet is one to watch.
The Childhood of a Leader must be the first American movie to use the title and name “Secretary Lansing” — more than once! Lansing was Robert, the little man whom Wilson banished to the shadows as the victorious Allied powers negotiated the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the Great War and presaged a second and deadlier one a generation later. An assistant to the assistant secretary of state (Game Of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham) confides his fears about Wilsonism to a sympathetic associate (Robert Pattison, coiffed and talking like a young Jonathan Pryce). Meanwhile his wife (Bérénice Bejo) watches as nine-year-old Prescott (Tom Sweet) acts as unruly as his hair (“This must be your daughter!” an acquaintance crows after catching the boy’s long locks). Infuriated by the way in which maids and teachers indulge him, the mother undertakes the grim task of disciplining him herself.
How this boy transforms into a ruler of men is the premise of The Childhood of a Leader. Corbet’s liberties cost him, though: audiences unfamiliar with the story will wonder why he didn’t title his film The Childhood of a Punk Ass. Although Corbet has said that Margaret MacMillan’s excellent Paris 1919 inspired him, you have to believe that the failures of the peace conference and Prescott’s nastiness proceeded on parallel tracks that eventually, sometime in the 1930s, meet. Where Sartre made it clear over the years that his young protagonist would at the very least turn into a sadist of a special sort (too clear, I’d argue; Sartre is the sort of writer whose clarity occludes his imaginative powers), Corbet presents a young jerk of no importance. Scott Walker’s score, played by a 120-piece orchestra, doesn’t help. LikeThere Will Be Blood ‘s Jonny Greenwood, the composer seems to have never watched a movie; the music is too portentous for what’s shown onscreen. When the extent of Prescott’s evil becomes known, Walker turns into Bernard Herrmann, pumping the film with so much juice that it sounds like the Luftwaffe was bombing the theater.
The film isn’t devoid of awkward exposition, as when a cabal of Very Important Men in tuxes wave cigars and say things like, “Is anyone hear actually concerned about a Communist revolution?” and “I’m not the only person who feels that diplomacy has been pushed aside!” Those moments excepted, The Childhood of a Leader trusts the audience’s ability to get the connections it tries to make. It has the rhythm of an exercise, a testing of new powers. It’s the most unlikely directorial debut by an actor in years. I expect Corbet to top it.