The Childhood of a Leader 2016 ***

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Before the pop excesses of Vox Lux, Brady Corbet’s debut feature explored the private life of a different kind of public figure. The Childhood of a Leader has a tricky concept to explain; it’s about the childhood of a man who will one day be a dictator, and is only named at the end of the film. Until then, the audience is given various clues and left to stew; we see The Boy (Tom Sweet) and his family round about the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Could it be Hitler, or Mussolini? Before anyone scampers off to google it, The Boy is eventually named as Prescott, but who is Prescott meant to represent? Corbet’s film is slow and stately, with Liam Cunningham and Bernice Bejo as the boy’s parents and Robert Pattinson contributing a small but significant cameo. Corbet’s film is frustrating, but also immersive and rewarding; whatever it means, and the jury is out for now, it’s engrossing and serious work.

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Vox Lux 2018 *****

Catnip for the Black Swan audience, Bradley Corbett’s Vox Lux spins a familiar trope into something original and yet familiar; a backstage story of a nervous female performer straggling with the pressure of on-stage performance. It’s remarkable then, that Vox Lux captures something different from other films on the subject; driven by a huge performance by Natalie Portman, Corbett seems to be leaning specifically on the circumstances involving Ariana Grande and the Manchester bombing. Portman’s pop-singing diva originally came to prominence in the aftermath of a high-school shooting, depicted in jarring in-your-face visuals in the opening scenes. Vox Lux drifts some way from her original demure stage persona, and she is seen struggling with substance abuse, as well and questionable relationships with her family and her agent (Jude Law, embracing his sleaze in a Dom Hemingway style). Vox Lux could have gone in several melodramatic ways, but Corbett continually dials the narrative back, creating a grounded yet soaring finale that’s got a real edge. Not for the masses, Vox Lux is a deconstruction of pop and womanhood that observes a fragmenting subject with a keen, dispassionate eye. Songs by Sia.