The Childhood of a Leader | Chilling coming-of-age tale explores the roots of fascism

The Childhood of a Leader Tom Sweet

The Childhood of a Leader Tom Sweet

Witness the birth of a terrifying ego.

What makes a tyrant? A chilling coming-of-age tale about a future fascist leader, The Childhood of a Leader addresses the question with formal daring, bracing intelligence and emotional insight – but doesn’t leave us with any easy answers.

Disconcertingly, the budding dictator looks like an angel. The young son of an American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) living in France in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, he has long blond hair and is frequently mistaken for a girl. However, while his aloof father occupies himself with the Paris Peace Conference and his equally distant mother (Bérénice Bejo) retreats to her room with a migraine, the boy imposes his fierce will on the household and behaves monstrously. The seeds of fascism, it appears, are being sowed.

This fascinating movie, the directing debut of American actor Brady Corbet, might not grab you right away. The pace is slow and the adult actors (who also include Robert Pattinson and Stacy Martin) sometimes seem stilted. Yet as events unfold, the film creates an overwhelming mood of dread. Scott Walker’s unnerving atonal score enhances the sense of menace. So does Lol Crawley’s gorgeous chiaroscuro photography. But it is the remarkable performance by nine-year-old Tom Sweet as the story’s eerily self-possessed protagonist that delivers the biggest chills.

Certificate 12A. Runtime 116 mins. Director Brady Corbet

The Childhood of a Leader debuts on Sky Cinema Premiere on Tuesday 20 June. Available on Blu-ray & DVD from Soda Pictures.

Photo by Agatha A. Nitecka

Jason Best

A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.