The Cast of Childhood of a Leader.
The Cast of The Childhood of a Leader. Photograph: Tom Munro

Last month’s East End Film Festival premiered Brady Corbet’s chilling directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader.

There is certainly a lot at play in this film, which is part political thriller, part psychoanalytic drama about how a fascist leader is created.

Set in 1918 in a quietly beautiful but bleak French village, the film imagines the life of the son of diplomat and aid to President Woodrow Wilson as his father negotiates the Treaty of Versailles.

While the characters’ interior lives remain mysterious, the tyrannical patriarch’s son Prescott has his lonely, cruel childhood laid bare.

The film stars the much-adored Twilight idol Robert Pattison, but critics have been left mesmerised by the brilliantly unsettling performance of ten-year-old Hackney-based actor Tom Sweet as the film’s leader in the making.

One might assume that Sweet had starred in a number of plays from a young age. As it happens, Childhood of a Leader is his first performance.

Even more surprisingly, the opportunity came about by chance. “I started acting when I was nine, it all happened really quickly – I was walking home from school with my parents one day, and I was just stopped and asked if I’d liked to audition for the film,” he explained.

Sweet’s role certainly isn’t an easy one. The film progresses through a number of increasingly disturbing ‘tantrums’ by the politician’s son, as he boils over under an austere, rigid home life.

Prescott doesn’t seem to gain any enjoyment out of antagonising the adults around him. He reacts with indifference to the recipients of his outbursts and his lack of emotional intensity appears far more believable than the usual ‘creepy child’ stock character rolled out in Hollywood.

Sweet and I were in agreement that Scott Walker’s shrill, orchestral score makes Childhood of A Leader truly fearsome. “I hadn’t watched any scary films before and I don’t like them that much but I’ve watched Childhood of a Leader four times and didn’t find it too bad! I suppose it definitely helps that I know it so well and understand the character. I remember being really frightened of the score when I watched it in Venice though – the music is amazing but so shocking”, he said.

It is clear that Prescott’s uncaring parents are to blame for his rebellion. Sweet admits that a number of scenes were difficult to film. The first scene he shot involved an especially violent altercation between himself and his onscreen father, but for Sweet, that’s all part of the fun. “Yeah, he’s definitely very mischievous! I think what I love most about acting is that I can be two totally different people, it’s the chance to step away from ordinary life for a bit and become someone else.”

While much of the critical attention to this film may be on Corbet’s debut as the director, the articulate, gifted Tom Sweet also provides much cause for excitement.

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