Director: Brady Corbet
Cast: Tom Sweet, Liam Cunningham, Bérénice Bejo
Spoilers Within: No

Brady Corbet’s first foray into directing opens with a booming overture, threatening and ominous to the point of oppression: a sinister bedrock that pervades the film from this introduction to its mystifyingly weird final shot. Scott Walker’s score is one of many components that gel deftly to create a fascinating if ultimately frustrating origin story for both Corbet’s new career path, and the young Prescott at the centre of this moody thriller.

I’ve had a keen eye on Corbet since I caught his subtly damaged turn in the unforgettably bleak Mysterious Skin and have since sought out and relished each of his roles: a magnetic presence in even the smallest of appearances/cameos, he’s always been a much welcome face in any cast roster. Admittedly, expectations of his directing debut The Childhood of a Leader could have been a little high, and whilst these were mostly met, they were met in a way that was different to what was anticipated.

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The Childhood of a Leader feels incredibly authentic of its post-World War I context, both the small French village and the grand home of the family becoming secondary characters to the limited cast. Tom Sweet is a fantastic discovery, embodying the juvenile Prescott with authoritative command over the cast of adults, from Liam Cunningham’s aloof Father at the foundation of the signing of The Treaty of Versailles and Bérénice Bejo’s quietly gloomy Mother, but its scenes with Stacy Martin’s Teacher of whom Prescott gradually sexualises and realises his penchant for bilingual intellect and melancholic independence. These scenes are staged with an expert purpose: a blurrily static shot on the Teacher’s see-through blouse as Prescott’s interest in home education wanes, or the equally unfocused high landscape shot as the two walk through a cultivated field are two examples of the optical flourishes that are somehow more subtle than they sound (despite being disconnected from the rest of the film). Only once is Corbet’s choice of camera distracting and remote, and that comes in a final, unprovoked moment that could have been reigned in. Lol Crawley’s cinematography is subliminally beautiful: constantly drab and always chilly, coordinating perfectly with the glacial pacing and looming soundtrack, but it’s the messiness of the darkened interior that gives the house a pulse, with some of the finest use of natural lighting I’ve seen this year dusty corners and winding stairways illuminated whilst Prescott’s literally signposted tantrums boil within its walls.

Influences from Corbet’s past collaborations with auteur directors of European cinema (specifically Haneke revision and Von Trier) echo throughout the film and he shows this appreciation for those respected directors with his own visual flairs and voice, articulating his vision in a way that if this literary approach to storytelling is to be his style, then he’s going to be as much a director to watch as he is an actor.

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Sometimes The Childhood of a Leader loses its grasp on its thesis: is Prescott supposed to be the avatar of fascism itself? or is he simply a universal idea of a leader? Its title suggests the former, yet its ending suggests the latter. This perplexing denouement is both effective and damaging in equal balance, the fantastically slow zoom out fills the screen with a greater reveal of information and context, finally revealing Robert Pattinson’s unnamed dictator. Up until that point, it can be assumed – maybe incorrectly – that this moment would be the unveiling of an adult Prescott as he fulfils his totalitarian destiny, but then it cuts away with a dizzying and ill-fitting shot that disorientates in a way that Corbet probably didn’t intend.

As a first feature, it’s spellbinding, intriguing and rewarding for its entirety, but with a bit more discipline it could have been a masterpiece of period homage. Corbet – as always – is going to be one to watch, and though it hasn’t exactly set audiences abuzz, it’ll hopefully find its market with a home release. The potential makings of a true cinematic auteur is an exciting thing to witness, especially when the 28-year-old has already proved himself a versatile force in cinema.

Grade: B+