Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

★★★★★

Having heard it described as ‘the perfect film’, I went in to Wes Anderson’s new movie, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ with undeniably high expectations. I was not disappointed. The film tells the story of Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), a concierge at the magnificent Grand Budapest Hotel. Through his association with one of the elderly guests (the splendid Tilda Swinton), is drawn into a story of murder, family feuding and fine art, with the result that he and his devoted lobby boy Zero resort to series of increasingly madcap capers across the borders of Europe to ensure his safety.

It is an unbelievably precise film, in all its facets. As usual, Anderson’s film-making highlights rather than minimises the artifice inherent in all films. Rather than creating something and positing it as natural, Anderson carefully constructs shots in which every piece of furniture is arranged at a perfect right angle, in which the scenery, the architecture, the decoration is made up of endless squares and rectangles. Frames are composed with precise symmetry and there are countless shots of men walking right down the centre of exactly square corridors. But unlike in some of his previous films, here Anderson never gets too caught up in his own cleverness: it always exists to add to both the comedy and the drama, rather than detract from it.

Furthermore these features function thematically as well as stylistically, for among other things, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is about storytelling, about creating universes. There are frames, within frames, within frames, as a young girl visits a memorial to an author, who introduces via video a memory of his younger self, who meets a man at the hotel, who eventually gets down to the business of telling Gustave’s story. Each frame is shot in a different aspect ratio, an interesting touch, and one which carries the implication of the changing perspective, even changing universe, that accompanies the change in narrator. Anderson even implies that the hero, M. Gustave himself, is a creator of universes, just as are those who tell his story. We are told that “His world had vanished before he even entered it” and he is shown this world up for his guests, arranging flowers, furniture, and amorous encounters all with the same dedication, just as one might imagine Anderson might have set up each frame of the film. It is an extremely self-reflexive work, and therein lies at least part of its power of enchantment.

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Fiennes delivers a performance which demonstrates previously untapped comedic potential, a far cry from the brooding, tortured characters of his resume, and yet no less accomplished. His characterisation is delicate, without ever becoming fussy, detailed without losing emotional depth. The honesty that both he and Tony Revolori bring to the relationship between Gustave and Zero is the solid foundation upon which all Anderson’s whimsy can be safely placed. Also commendable are William Defoe’s unnerving and ferocious villain, Saoirse Ronan’s enchanting turn as a baker’s assistant, and an understated performance by Jude Law. It’s an impressive cast, and the acting here pulls no punches.

Perhaps most importantly the film is undeniably hilarious. It is a perfectly pitched comedy, that had me chuckling more than anything else I’ve seen recently, and yet was still suspenseful, and edged with both darkness and loss. The film conveys nostalgia without kitsch, mainly because of the success, in his role in one of the framing narratives, of F. Murray Abraham in connecting that nostalgia to a very sincere sense of personal sadness and grief. It was undoubtedly a tour de force, and if you miss it then I am absolutely certain that you will be missing out.

Just a postscript though: it is perhaps worth looking at the poster for this film, if you do you’ll notice that it’s rows and rows of pictures of the rather extraordinary cast. Out of the seventeen faces, only three are women.