EIFF Review: The Childhood of a Leader

Brady Corbet’s directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader, is an unsettling operatic piece that gives the coming of age film a grim and slow-burning makeover. The result is a truly accomplished debut with an tense unease that lingers with you for days.

After the First World War, Young Prescott (Tom Sweet) and his Mother (Bérénice Bejo) reside in the French countryside as his American Father (Liam Cunningham) – an aid to US President Woodrow Wilson – works on the Treaty of Versailles.

Corbet and Mona Fastvold’s screenplay is structured around four core chapters – the first three examining pivotal tantrums in Prescott’s childhood, with a final examining the consequences of these. However, these links feel predominantly allegorical with The Childhood of a Leader giving viewers plenty of food for thought in all areas from the political spectrum to family life and child discipline. Corbet’s narrative tightly coils from the onset before delivering blows of nerve-shredding magnitude in the magnificently constructed third and final acts.

The first chapter lays the groundwork for Prescott’s troubling behaviour focussing on the young boy throwing rocks at churchgoers after a nativity recital. Corbet quietly escalates this throughout The Childhood of a Leader, refusing to turn this behaviour into anything over-the-top or campy – it all feels subtle and most importantly, authentic. Within this dynamic Corbet examines the varying mother-child and father-child dynamics. Bejo excels as his youthful, yet often severe mother – a mother who is less maternal than the family maid. Cunningham delivers a steely coldness and distance as his otherwise-occupied father. With no clear affection or attention from these parents, Prescott’s acting-out and continual tantrums make more sense with the responses to these growing more unsettling. A small role from Robert Pattinson impresses with the actor bringing a quiet gravitas to the fold as a kindly friend of Prescott’s father.

Corbet’s direction lends a real sense of dramatic tension to the production and often feels more like something you would expect from a horror film – although there are plenty of unconventional ‘horror’ moments here. Much praise should go to Corbet and his production team’s aesthetic choices. There’s a mustiness in the old French chateau setting that boasts a real child-unfriendliness thanks to Jean-Vincent Puzos’s precise production design making it the perfect setting for this operatic production. However, it is Scott Walker’s soundtrack that delivers much of The Childhood of a Leader’s frantic unease. There’s a crushing weight and grandiose scale to Walker’s powerful orchestral productions which heighten low-key moments of distress to a near unbearable dread-soaked magnitude. This is at its most explicit in the film’s masterfully powerful final chapter.

The Childhood of a Leader is slow-burning and can verge on impenetrable at moments, but it is a watch that lingers and chills for days. Corbet has delivered an unflinchingly powerful debut that delivers an unease that one rarely experiences on film. Directed with a foreboding dread and unsettled energy this is a watch like no other.


Director: Brady Corbet
Stars: Berenice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Robert Pattinson, Stacey Martin & Tom Sweet

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