The Childhood of a Leader (3 stars)

The Childhood of a Leader

Beautifully shot if narratively underwhelming look at the early years of a fascist leader

There was a lot of heated discussion at at last year's Venice Film Festival about this ambitious directorial debut from actor turned filmmaker Brady Corbet (who co-wrote with his partner Mona Fastvold), a dread-laden fable of a spoilt brat who grows up to become a totalitarian dictator somewhere in the 20th Century. You have to applaud the bravura craft components of the film, even though you may dislike its pretentiousness.

Child actor Tom Sweet is suitably unnerving as the horrid son of a preoccupied American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) and coldly detached European mother (Berenice Bejo), who are living in rural decayed splendour in France during U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's attendance at the post-War Versailles negotiations in 1919. We are introduced to the pretty child dressed as an angel for a nativity play, but absorbed in hurling rocks at parishioners, and the film is then structured as a progression of tantrums; ie The First Tantrum – A Sign of Things to Come.

It's possible that constantly being mistaken for a girl, with his dresses and long blond hair, has contributed to the watchful, enigmatic child's outbursts of rage but his development as a sociopath is shallow and glib – however many references to French philosophy and cinema are tossed into the mix. His parents veer slightly between indifferent and inadequate, his precocious sexual interest in his tutor (Stacy Martin) is unwholesome, but how this all translates to his becoming a fascist head of state in later years is sketchy to say the least.

Prominent billing notwithstanding, Robert Pattinson features only slightly; first as a friend of the family and then, bafflingly, as the Leader himself. But performances are not what this film will be remembered for, rather how self-consciously it's designed, composed, decorated and shot to proclaim the arrival of a 'Serious Filmmaker'. It will be more interesting to see where Corbet goes from here, providing he can produce a more involving screenplay.

Key cities from Fri 19 Aug.

The Childhood of a Leader

  • 3 stars
  • 2016
  • UK / France / Hungary
  • 1h 58min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Brady Corbet
  • Cast: Berenice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Tom Sweet, Robert Pattinson, Stacy Martin
  • UK release: 19 August 2016

An American diplomat (Cunningham) and his European wife (Bejo), living in France in 1919 for the Versailles negotiations, have a pretty son (Sweet) who develops into a horribly spoiled brat. Ambitious and well-crafted but pretentious and narratively unconvincing fable from actor-turned-director Corbet.