The Childhood of a Leader

Plenty of directors keep thing simple with their first feature, but not Brady Corbet. Rather than cut his teeth with - say - a lean horror-thriller, the 27-year-old opts for a deliberately ambiguous period drama that doubles as a meditation on the birth of post-war fascism. That's not an easy sell by any stretch, so it's a good job there's more than ambition to admire. In fact there's a whole lot more - The Childhood of a Leader is a visually striking and scarily assured piece of filmmaking.

From the very outset things feel unnervingly askew. Liam Cunningham's US diplomat is in France working on the Treaty of Versailles and when we first meet him he's drunkenly putting the world to rights with journalist pal Robert Pattinson. On the surface it's a fairly mundane scenario, yet there's also something darker at play. As more and more drinks are poured Pattinson's face seems to become twisted and misshapen. Only as he's leaving do we learn - almost in passing - that his wife was lost in the war.

This is how the film plays out, details sporadically trickling to the surface as Cunningham's distant disciplinarian leaves his ice queen European wife (Bérénice Bejo) to look after their young son, Prescott (mightily impressive newcomer Tom Sweet). A nurturing maternal presence she is not, so while nothing is spelled out and the curtain never fully pulled back the violent, string-heavy score provides a none-too-subtle indication of what's to come.

Corbet's camera stalks the corridors of the family's cavernous country pile before stopping dead still, revealing image after image and scene after scene where something isn't quite right. Every relationship, every interaction that Prescott has with the world around him is somehow off. Hell, with his mother isolating herself away and his father carving up Europe from the comfort of his own drawing room is it any real wonder?

What we're witnessing is the making of a monster - parental failings mirroring the wider political missteps of the day. As time goes by the boy's tantrums, outbursts and all-round behaviour become increasingly unsettling, boredom, frustration and anger allowed to fester and congeal until something truly sinister takes root. The uneasy tension eventually builds to breaking point, the violent release expected but still packing one hell of a punch. Not bad for a debut.
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