The First World War is ending, with all the turmoil that has left behind across Europe, which leaves the diplomats to pick up the pieces and try to mend what the conflict has broken: treaties, trade, assistance to those who need it most. One such man (Liam Cunningham) is living in France to sort this mess out, in a large country mansion with his wife (Bérénice Bejo) and young son, Prescott (Tom Sweet), and social and business occasions are held there with the help of his staff, all in the process of rebuilding the continent. However, with such an important task ahead, is the man neglecting his son? Could that be the reason the boy is misbehaving, and took to throwing stones at the attendees to the nativity play he was appearing in?
This was apparently loosely based on the Jean-Paul Sartre writings of the same name, though co-screenwriter (with Mona Fastvold) and director Brady Corbet was more inclined to take that as a jumping off point to combine a selection of musings over what makes a child into a dictator in adult life. This might have made sense to him, but for the audience the clues he uncovered left many of them little the wiser, as after all simply because a child is disruptive and badly behaved does not necessarily follow that they will grow up to start wars and be responsible for the deaths of millions, indeed the likelihood of that turning out to be the case was rather slim, as many other factors had to be taken into account.
The myriad incidents that cause children to become the adults they do tend to make sense mostly in hindsight, as while everyone suffers some form of traumatic event in the formative years, whether they instigate it or not, tracing what transformed that into character traits that would blossom into evil in the future were damn difficult to predict, and this was verging dangerously into territory that justified locking people up for what you suspect they might do rather than what they have done, or even what they never planned to do but you were suspicious of. A chain of events such as those hence puts the schemer who would clamp down on those they dislike as more of the potential dictator than those they are turning victim.
So who should we be examining, if that were the case? Corbet has no answers, be merely blankly presented a series of vignettes about Prescott to illustrate his descent into evil, culminating in an act of destruction that would be a dry run for his future crimes against humanity, as for some reason, no matter that the action was enough to get them institutionalised for life back in the post-Great War period, this was purely proof of his power. Another aspect working against that effect is that until the final five minutes we see nothing but a little brat who was made worse by parental mishandling; Corbet doesn't buy into the notion that people are born bad, more that it is the circumstances they meet growing up that shape them into unlovely adults. But again, the psychology was flimsy, either that or too much was taken for granted.
Sweet did not live up to his name as the terrible tyke, convincing as far as that went as a problem child who will graduate to far worse as he becomes an adult, but the story itself was delivered in a series of scenes, mostly interiors, often with rather indistinct dialogue or at least indistinct motivations, which made for a turbid experience cinematically when you had the impression Corbet wanted to be as plain as possible what he believed his message was. In that respect Childhood of a Leader was a frustrating film to watch, never mind listen to, yet it was not a dead loss as the strongest element was its soundtrack: not that dialogue, but a musical score composed by Scott Walker, sixties survivor turned experimentalist, which for much of the time carried the sinister, almost horror movie tone with its dramatic strings emphasising the dreadful events to come. This was worth watching for those last five minutes, a Triumph of the Will-aping rally where the ears were pummelled by Walker's horrified tones. Other than that, it needed more polish.