Has the indisputable modern day king of quirky comedy Wes Anderson outdone all previous efforts with the brilliant The Grand Budapest Hotel? Simon Evans & Luke Ostler find out…
This week a friend asked me to recommend a film to see at the cinema. Without hesitation I answered: The Grand Budapest Hotel. ‘What’s it about?’ came the response, the same question that would be asked nine times out of ten in this situation. ‘Well, it’s a Wes Anderson film’. I’d hoped that the mere mention of the director’s name would suffice as a complete and fully-realised explanation for what the film was about, but all that came back was a blank, impatient expression. ‘Fantastic Mr Fox? The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou? Moonrise Kingdom?’ She may not have been aware of the director’s name, but had surely stumbled across some of his previous works? ‘No, sorry. I haven’t seen any of them’. I was lost for words, unable to vocalise the intangible essence of Anderson. At this point it occurred to me that there must be a pithy, profound way of describing the output of this venerated auteur and, by extension, his latest offering, The Grand Budapest Hotel. If so, however, it proved elusive: ‘Er, what’s it about….? It’s not so much what it’s about… well, it begins with… erm… I’m afraid you’ll just have to go and see it; then you’ll understand!’
For those who would like to understand something of the film’s world before committing time and money to it, which isn’t an altogether unreasonable request, the action is set in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. Europia might have been another name for this land ever-so-slightly removed from reality, such is the breadth of references to differing real-world mainland European nations. The focus, once it is found, is on the titular hotel, a glamorous retreat seemingly built atop an Alp, and its charismatic concierge, Ralph Fiennes’ dashing Gustav H.
Don’t think for a second, though, that even this introduction is conducted without a directorial flourish; the viewer is thrust into Anderson’s world with a uniquely immersive narrative framing. The film begins in the present day, and the story is told through this modern context, which is, of course, a setup used countless times in film and television. But Wes Anderson doesn’t do anything conventionally. The film opens with a fan’s pilgrimage to the contemporary grave of a famous author. Cue a flashback to 1985 where said author is describing the origins of his book ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. Cue another flashback to 1968 with the same author visiting the Grand Budapest, whereupon he meets its owner Zero and persuades him to tell his story. Finally, we flash back to 1932, where the bulk of the running time is spent. Managed to keep up? Anderson has added these two extra time frames merely to provide a modern-day context for his piece; the extra scenes are brief, rewarding, and most importantly do not confuse. It’s a trick that surfaces several times further during the film as comic sequences are strung out with levels of repetition that in any other picture would elicit groans, but which somehow ramp up the fun even further.
Back in the main thread, Gustav accidentally inherits a priceless painting after applying his considerable charms to its owner, an elderly yet still lusty baroness, whose family contrive to have him incarcerated for the matriarch’s murder. It then falls to Zero, Gustav’s lobby boy and sidekick, to aid his ‘liberally-perfumed’ superior in a breakneck escape. Minor events soon make it clear that war lurks ominously on the horizon, although the calmness with which the characters accept this fact suggests that Zubrowka’s natural role is that of an oft-invaded and frequently occupied territory. Sporadic and nameless enemy soldiers pop up to impede our protagonists on their journey. The political motivations of these forces are not lingered on by our central characters; they are merely an annoyance for the unflappable Gustav H and Zero, whose focus always remains on the task at hand and most certainly not on the impending annexation of their motherland.
At its heart this is a buddy movie and, like all buddy movies, the marker of its true efficacy as a piece of entertainment rests on the quality of writing and the performance of the leads. Fortunate, then, that in this case it is impossible to overstate the remarkableness of the performances produced by Fiennes and his young co-star Tony Revolori as Zero. The previously unknown Revolori bounces off his considerably older colleague with the energy of a natural and joyous chemistry; you’d think the pair of them had been honing these roles for years. It’s a performance to compare with Hailee Steinfeld’s breakthrough in the recent Coen Brothers update of True Grit; both of these young actors make a mockery of their lack of credentials with superbly natural performances in deeply challenging roles. Fiennes is undoubtedly a splendid actor with highly creditable past roles in classic pictures like Schindler’s List and The English Patient under his distinguished belt. The Grand Budapest Hotel, however, bears witness to Fiennes’ true breakout performance; he is an absolute revelation. In Bruges teased us with a glimpse of his comic potential, but here the 51-year-old raises the rafters. His delivery of Anderson’s dialog is impeccable and his presentation of the physical aspects of the role is simply outstanding. This is the role that Ralph Fiennes was made for and his strongest to date, which isn’t an assertion to be made lightly.
By now you might be beginning to get the sense that I liked this film (and if not it’s time for me to find a new job)! Just in case, and with great pleasure, I’ll go on just a little longer. The real sparkle of The Grand Budapest Hotel lies in its countless thoughtful touches, moments that will live long in the memory. Edward Norton as a gentleman officer readying himself for the regrettable task of arresting Gustav H, who he has great respect for. Gustav politely interrupting Zero’s poetry when the abrupt claxon of prison sirens signal the need for a speedy departure. Gustav’s latter-day equivalent creeping onto the edge of the frame in the mistaken belief that he is being summoned to a guest’s aid before, cravenly slinking away upon realising he is not required. Gustav declaring that his newly-acquired priceless work of art shall hang above his bed until his dying day before instantly reversing his stance, without a trace of irony, to decide on selling it as soon as possible. The film, in a slick 99 minute running time, is absolutely peppered with neat comedic and dramatic moments. In recent times it’s become standard practice for a comedy film’s trailer to divulge all the funny moments, but that just wouldn’t be possible with The Grand Budapest Hotel, even if it wanted to.
The same fate befalls this review; not only should the majority of treats on offer not be revealed to the reader, but they simply couldn’t be in the space of 1400 words. However, the elderly Zero’s selective exclusion of his young sweetheart Agatha, played with brilliant straight laces by Saoirse Ronan, from the start of his story is such a neat narrative trick that it certainly should be mentioned. We catch a glimpse of this first love of a lobby boy early on in proceedings before Zero quickly ushers the story in another direction, and it is only when Agatha becomes essential to the plot that her character becomes visible. This is yet another unique trick played by Anderson that infuses the film with a dynamic three-dimensional quality; we get a real sense of his characters living beyond the cinema screen. To create such convincing depth in a broadly comic and consciously streamlined film is a breathtaking achievement.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is an exceptional and extremely rare gem. Wes Anderson more than lives up to his burgeoning reputation by toying and teasing the viewer with countless visual tricks and, as a mainstream film-maker, he has single-handedly reinvented the art of mise-en-scene; every individual frame is a beautiful work of art to be marvelled at. Anderson is a director who clearly takes pleasure from honing and developing his unique craft and is in a rare talent group, for his profession, that seem to be improving with age. As his reputation grows so does the roster of talent at his disposal, but the countless cameos in no way reduce the tremendous quality and focus of the production. As an ensemble piece, this is without equal. Go to see it now.