If I go to the movies to see a film on its first week of release, you can safely bet that it is one that I have been looking forward to with great expectations. You can also be pretty sure that it is unlikely to become a box-office champion blockbuster. Such is the case with the above new film from the winsome auteur director Wes Anderson. He burst on to the scene with the rising cult film "Bottle Rocket" at the ripe old age of 25 twenty years ago and has been consistently delighting, albeit small portions of the cinema audience, ever since with a dazzling variety of increasingly mature and idiosyncratic movies. This film opened the recent Berlin Film Festival and is now making the rounds, but it is still more akin to an art-house product than a potential fan-boy smash hit.
It thoroughly deserves the generally splendid reviews it has been garnering, but one critic whose opinions I often share dismissed it as mildly entertaining but too 'twee'. Now to my mind that adjective categorises the film as some sort of chocolate box and kittens childish affair, which is really akin to a negative review. This is far from the case as Anderson has indulged his love of the absurd by creating a fantasy Neverland, full of (yes) pink palaces, cut-out landscapes, and a sprawling rococo schloss. Set in a mythical Eastern European country akin to Ruritania and inspired by the quirky tales of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, we travel between various time frames. Much of the action is set in 1932 as Europe braces itself for the coming inevitable war, but we also visit the approximate present and the mid-sixties. At that point the once very grand hotel has shrunk to a run-down Communist pension, although still existing in the shadow of good times and high living now departed, and it is here that the young writer (Jude Law) questions the hotel's shadowy owner (F. Murray Abraham) as to how he came to own the now decaying property.
Anderson has a growing stable of regular actors keen to work with him again and again and he finds parts for all of them here -- Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Edward Norton to name but a few -- some central to the action and some no more than fleeting cameos. A newcomer to his stock company taking the lead is Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H., the concierge who ensures that the pre-war hotel runs like clockwork and that all of his aristocratic and aging guests (especially the ladies) are kept satisfied in every conceivable was. The well-spoken classically inclined actor really lightens up here and gives a masterly- conceived and relishable performance in this often black comedy farce. It is rumoured that the role was originally offered to Johnny Depp who, likeable as he is, could never have produced such a well-rounded and delightful performance. The plot revolves around the McGuffin of a valuable painting left to Fiennes after the suspicious death of grande dame Tilda Swinton (made up with absolutely no 'side' as an ancient crone). He is accused by her greedy son (Brody) and his three ugly sisters of murdering the old lady, supposedly as witnessed by her butler (a nearly unrecognizable Mathieu Amalric), and is pursued by Brody's villainous and largely silent henchman, Willem Dafoe. He lands in pokey but manages to break out with the help of his 'Lobby Boy' Zero (Tony Revolori playing the very young Abraham), Zero's fianceé the master cake-maker Saoirse Ronan with a birthmark the shape of Mexico on her face, and a fearsome collection of fellow inmates led by a bald, bare-chested and tattooed Harvey Keitel. His chase to try to prove his innocence takes him across real snowy landscapes, assisted at every turn by the combined know-how of the concierges at the area's grand hotels and an assortment of closeted monks. When he eventually arrives back at the Grand Budapest the place has been seized by the new pseudo-Nazis as their headquarters; Gustave's cosy and pampered world has begun its change for the worse. Nothing ends happily for most of the characters, but then again they probably could never have been happy in this looming new world.
Anderson has made some very memorable movies in the last twenty years, among them "Rushmore", "The Royal Tenenbaums", "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou", "Moonrise Kingdom", and the remarkable stop-action animation "The Fantastic Mr. Fox". The only one which slightly let the side down was "The Darjeeling Limited" which was overly self-indulgently played by his three main leads. However all of his films have managed to give us a slightly different perspective of his skill in working with large ensemble casts, all of whom live in worlds we can never hope to visit, and all done with an amusing and highly decorative aesthetic. He may be an acquired taste, but my goodness, I find his movies ever so tasty.
My one objection to this otherwise glorious film was the unnecessary use of so-called bad language. I have no objection in principle to as much 'effin' and 'blindin' as you like, but I did feel it was inappropriate here. Fiennes with his trail of personal perfume was playing a character that could never really have existed, a man of such refined sensibilities that he would have shuddered to utter the kind of phrases that one associates with Samuel L. Jackson for one. This I think was a definite misjudgement in the otherwise enchanting movie that Anderson has gifted to us.