Tom Sweet plays the long-locked boy (only once named as Prescott) who is repeatedly mistaken for a girl. Mumbling his lines for a Christmas performance, the audience are thrown the clue that he may have a Messiah complex.
“Why would you want to hurt anyone?”
The child gets a kick out of throwing stones at people leaving the nearby church. At first he seems to be a vulnerable soul, but soon you’ll wonder whether his bed wetting is more about attention seeking than fear. Over nearly two hours, you’ll watch his stubborn personality develop along with his grasp of the inappropriate and a brutal ability to calculate how to dispense with those who get in his way.
While the residence’s cook is firmly wound round his little finger, Ada proves to have stricter boundaries to her friendship with the little tyrant. Yet both characters suffer the same fate.
His father is Irish-American, a US diplomat who spends a lot of time away in Paris working on the Treaty of Versailles. Liam Cunningham plays an at first clean cut character whose sinister side is later revealed when we discover he can follow up his threats with violence.
While the two parents – one absent geographically, the other mentally – together weave the beginnings of a pattern of dysfunctionality, their less wholesome traits don’t feel sufficiently weighty to create the monster who occupies the child’s bedroom upstairs.
Writer/director Brady Corbet serves up a number of plot points that feel under-cooked, either red herrings or very broad hints at inappropriate behaviour or relationships (eg, the father caught talking to Ada) in the house. The version of this film running in the QFT subtitles the conversations in French, though at times the English is indistinct.
Spiralling camerawork near the end suggests that world affairs and the family are spinning out of control. But the very final shots are much more disorientating and hard to read. Also perplexing is the issue of which – if any – historical fascist leader the boy is supposed to grow up to become?
The Childhood of a Leader is not a feel good film. But it is a curious, slow-moving inspection of a disturbing family life that isn’t so far removed from ordinary households to be unfamiliar. The film is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre between 19 and 25 August.