Childhood of a Leader review: a stunning high-art debut

Brady Corbet’s ambitious directorial debut features great performances, arresting visuals and a fantastic score by Scott Walker

The Childhood of a Leader
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Director: Brady Corbet
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Tom Sweet, Berenice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Yolande Moreau, Robert Pattinson, Jaques Boudet
Running Time: 1 hr 55 mins

Now this is what we like to see when an actor first slips behind the camera. Brady Corbet, the handsome young star of Thunderbirds and Mysterious Skin, has not made a film about cheesemongers in Brooklyn.

Demonstrating the recklessness that comes only with youth, Corbet has embraced his much-discussed intellectual enthusiasms and directed a 1970s European art film. There’s a hint of Herzog. There’s a smidgeon of Schlöndorff. You can almost smell the Gitanes baked into the faded Antonioni carpeting.

Corbet starred in Michael Haneke's US remake of Funny Games and the plot carries hints of The White Ribbon (a film that fits comfortably into the tradition referenced above).

Our own Liam Cunningham plays an American diplomat in France for the negotiations following the first World War. His European wife (Bérénice Bejo) seems less than overjoyed to be dumped in a crumbling pile some distance from the action.


Their young son (Tom Sweet) is already going barmy when the film begins and he gets steadily more difficult as events progress. We see him throwing stones at the local church. His refusal to eat his dinner triggers a domestic crisis. He turns up nearly naked during a tense negotiation.

The title gives some clue as to where the story is heading. A quick calculation and a consideration of the lad's parentage will confirm that we are not looking at a younger version of Hitler or Mussolini. But (as in The White Ribbon) trails are being laid down towards a fascist future. Childhood of a Leader is more ambitious still. The title character, imploding while the world is carved up in the adjacent room, is clearly meant to be the very personification of Europe. Phew!

The film is drenched in forgivable flaws. In the first 30 minutes, the key characters - among them Robert Pattinson’s louche diplomat - spend too much time telling us who they are. But the fetid atmosphere is deliciously maintained in a film that boasts an invigorating clash between steady accretion and high bombast.

The performances are all strong. Lol Crawley’s wintery photography is first rate. The MVP remains, however, the perennially eccentric musician Scott Walker. Scoring the brilliant opening montage to a noise that suggests György Ligeti in a bicycle factory, the great man prepares the ground for one of the year’s most arresting debuts.

We can barely wait to see what Corbet does next.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist