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The Childhood of a Leader

A fascinating drama about the early days of a fascist dictator that feels uncomfortably timely today.
By Sarah Ward
May 11, 2017
By Sarah Ward
May 11, 2017

It's with the swirling, piercing tones of a string-filled overture that The Childhood of a Leader begins. Ominous, unsettling and reminiscent of many a horror movie, the distinctive music provides quite the introduction — but then, that's what this film is all about. Actor turned first-time director Brady Corbet (Clouds of Sils Maria, While We're Young) announces his arrival as a filmmaker with a thoroughly ambitious effort about the youth of someone destined to become a fascist force to be reckoned with.

After kicking things off in such spectacularly sinister fashion, Scott Walker's stunning score ushers viewers through a series of chapters, or 'tantrums', that comprise the film's narrative. At its centre is a ten-year-old American boy (Tom Sweet) growing up in France in 1919. His father (Liam Cunningham) works for US president Woodrow Wilson in the aftermath of WWI, helping to establish what will become the Treaty of Versailles. His mother (Bérénice Bejo) is distant and stern, so he warms to his French tutor (Stacy Martin) — a little too much, in fact.

The time, the place, and the treaty will no doubt make viewers think of a particular historical figure who went on to devastate Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Watching to see how your suspicions play out is part of the thrill of The Childhood of a Leader, although don't expect Corbet to play with the past exactly as we know it. Real-life parallels remain obvious, but it's the themes and ideas, rather than the specific details, that carry the most significance. Given everything that's happened in global politics since the film was shot in 2015, they're also what proves the most frightening.

How does evil take root, be it in one person or an entire society? Does nature triumph over nurture? Does apathy and malaise breed something much more insidious than mere contempt and discontent? Corbet brings all of these questions to the fore – and while he's not particularly subtle about it, his approach works. An early line of dialogue, taken from a famous phrase coined about WWII, couldn't be more telling. "That was the tragedy. Not that one man has the courage to be evil, but that so many have not the courage to be good."

That observation is uttered by none other than Robert Pattinson, who plays a friend of the boy's father. His role is a small but pivotal one, and will keep viewers on their toes — scrutinising each lavish frame as they wait to see if and when he reappears. The Childhood of a Leader demands that kind of close attention, and rewards it as well. You have to keep your wits about you when a seemingly ordinary situation slowly but surely turns into a nightmare.

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