Review: ‘Childhood of a Leader’ spins wintry tale around the formation of a fascist mind

“The Childhood of a Leader” is a chilly — and chilling — political thriller by way of a provocative domestic chamber piece. Strikingly mounted, lighted, shot and scored, this tense, decidedly arty film marks a bravura feature directing debut for young American actor Brady Corbet (“Melancholia,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene”). But will most viewers have the patience for its deliberate pace, elliptical telling and dark, emotional remove?

Set toward the end of World War I, the movie spirals around Prescott (Tom Sweet), an eerily defiant, mop-haired 7-year-old living in a gloomy chateau outside Paris with his icy mother (Bérénice Bejo of “The Artist”) and stern father (Liam Cunningham), an American diplomat working for President Woodrow Wilson. Suffice to say, it’s hardly a nurturing, kid-friendly atmosphere.

Corbet, who co-wrote with Mona Fastvold, posits that this fraught period in Prescott’s life — along with a confluence of world events — set the stage for his adult future as a fascist dictator. It proves an intriguing and haunting if somewhat tenuously drawn scenario.

Strong, tightly-wound lead performances, as well as a brief, nicely modulated supporting turn by Robert Pattinson as a politician and family friend, help hold interest. Still, this is a director’s showcase and Corbet, with the support of a superb tech team (especially composer Scott Walker) impresses and fascinates.


“The Childhood of a Leader”


In English and French with English subtitles.

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica