SFF: Stephen’s Review – The Childhood of a Leader

As thrilling a debut as I can recall in recent years, Brady Corbet’s menacing messing with wartime history is quite spectacular. Chid star Tom Sweet steals the show.

From the alarming bass-heavy strings of Scott Walker’s distressing overture, calling to mind horror done William Freidkin-style and set to black and white newsreel footage of the immediate aftermath of the Great War, the startlingly assured feature debut of young American actor turned writer/director Brady Corbet’s The Childhood of a Leader announces itself as wilfully mischievous.

Loosely drawn from the eponymous John Paul Sartre fascist-in-the-making short story and co-written by Mona Fastvold, the placing in a strangely run down though glamorously appointed rural French village’s mansion during the hammering out of what would be the Versailles Treaty suggests historical reality, even though we know that France did not, in time for WWII, produce a Mussolini or Franco equivalent. This is a world both like and unlike ours, a slightly skewed alternate not quite as dramatically altered as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

It’s for this reason that Corbet is coy about naming his main character, with Tom Sweet beggaring belief as the child and future leader of the title. An odd looking boy with a face seemingly far too wise for his young frame, there’s an oddly frightening glint in his eyes. A sort of period drama take on We Need To Talk About Kevin, the nature versus nurture debate gets a grand thrashing here.

When we first see him, the audience is looking in from the darkness outside a church window, with the only eventually named brat wearing angel wings for a nativity play, though tellingly lit eerily by candle flame. In league with Walker’s score, there’s clearly a devil lurking inside this young man. Moments later, he’s hurling rocks at the churchgoers on the way out, chased into thick forest where he’s promptly knocked out by a tree.

Considering this is his acting debut, Sweet’s command of the role and the boy’s malignant influence over his atrociously manipulative parents, played with impressive iciness and magnificent self-importance by The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo and Game of Thrones’ Ser Davos, Liam Cunningham, is staggering.

Father is an adviser of American President Wilson’s Secretary of State, though has clearly has ideas above his station and is also, it’s strongly hinted, having an affair with the boy’s French teacher Ada (Nymphomaniac’s Stacy Martin). It’s an undercurrent his son sharply picks up on, prompting a series of tantrums signalled in arch inter-title chapter headings.

Mother, emotionally withdrawn from both her husband and son and lashing out at Ada and the live-in servants, most notably in the film’s most devastating scene featuring Belgian actress Yolande Moreau, would appear to be having a forbidden tryst of her own with a welcome Robert Pattinson’s family friend Charles. While Twilight fans may be downtrodden when they realise how little screen time he has, the increasingly impressive star makes an indelible mark nonetheless.

The atmosphere within this stiflingly oppressive house is continually wound up until the boy is ready to blow, with a late scene adding to a fine tradition of cinematic dinner parties gone horribly wrong. Getting there and onto the film’s gloriously reality bending finale is a breathtaking experience that signals Corbet as an incredibly exciting talent to watch. A little wander through his acting credits showcases a fine lineage of teachers, having worked with directors the likes of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier.

There’s a nightmarish creature gnawing at the edges of this world, with a dread-filled prophecy appearing to the boy in a ghostly dream, the import of which only makes itself clear in the chilling finale, unveiling a dark future with a very clever trick of casting that ties back neatly to and expands upon The Childhood of a Leader’s opening scenes.

Lol Crawley’s epic cinematography, shot on gloriously rich, painterly film, exacerbates this air of menace, both in the fusty confines of the old house and in a stunning aerial pan shot in that briefly glimpsed future, with the light streaming through a grand dome reflected in the highly polished surface of a great wooden table. Walker ably layers on the tension too.

It really cannot be stressed enough just how uncanny Sweet’s work as this monster in waiting is, and just how keen an eye Corbet has for finely wrought melodrama of a perversely intriguing nature. If the future he predicts is as dark as it seems, then at least I hope he remains a part of it for a long time to come.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords