movie film review | chris tookey

Grand Budapest Hotel

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  Grand Budapest Hotel Review
Tookey's Rating
5 /10
Average Rating
7.92 /10
Ralph Fiennes , Saoirse Ronan, Bill Murray
Full Cast >

Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness , inspired by the writing of Stefan Zweig

Released: 2014
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US/ Germany
Colour: C
Length: 99

Like a pile of profiteroles, but whereís the profit?
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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For a movie that doesnít have any political axe to grind, or indeed anything momentous to say, The Grand Budapest Hotel is divisive. People tend to love it or hate it. For me, itís like an enormous pile of multi-coloured profiteroles: impressive to look at and quite tasty at first but when you bite into it thereís nothing but thin air. If youíre hoping for nourishment, itís negligible. I can see why some might hail this as a visual masterpiece, while others will dismiss it as a forgettable folly. Itís a little of both.

Itís the best-looking Wes Anderson film yet, but as Iím not a big fan of his creations thatís far from a ringing endorsement. If youíre in the mood for this kind of thing, youíll be entertained. If this kind of thing leaves you cold, youíll regard it as a monumental waste of time Ė your own and those taking part.

So what kind of a thing is it? Just to give you a feeling of how tricksy it is, itís presented Ė for not much reason except to show clever itís being - as a story within a story within a story. In the present day, an unnamed young lady arrives at a cemetery where she stops before a tomb to a famous author.

The first flashback is to the elderly author (Tom Wilkinson) in the 80s, recounting how, as a young writer, he visited the Grand Budapest Hotel.

Cue second flashback to the 1960s within the faded, failing hotel in the fictitious republic of Zubrowska. Here, the budding author (now played by Jude Law) encounters an old, rich man (F. Murray Abraham) who owns the hotel and recounts the story of how he once worked as its bellboy.

Cue flashback three, to the 1930s, where the real story takes place. In most movies, the script would start here, and rightly so. A timid young bellboy (Tony Revolori), a blank slate of a character named Zero, starts being mentored by the seemingly omniscient concierge Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). Monsieur Gustave is a camp but distinctly heterosexual man renowned for giving his customers exactly what they want, which extends to offering personal services to elderly, wealthy female visitors.

One of these is an elaborately aged-up Tilda Swinton, playing the splendidly named Madame Desgoffe-und-Taxis, who dies and leaves Gustave a priceless painting in her will, much to the annoyance of her nasty, fascistic son (Adrien Brody) and his psychopathic henchman (Willem Dafoe).

There follows a protracted chase as Gustave and the bellboy make off with the painting, pursued by the ultra-melodramatic bad guys, interrupted by a perfunctory love story between the bellboy and a young pastry chef (Saoirse Ronan, a luminous talent wasted) and numerous celebrity cameos Ė blink and you really might miss George Clooney.

Thereís no doubt that Monsieur Gustave is the hero of the picture, and heís brilliantly played by Ralph Fiennes, who some critics believed was making his first attempt at comedy but whose gift for comic timing was also evident in In Bruges, made five years earlier. As for his embarrassing attempt to play John Steed in the movie version of the Avengers, ten years before In Bruges, letís just treat it as a ghastly, momentary aberration.

Fiennes is delightful as the concierge, matching elegance of manner and diction to his quasi-religious belief in civility and high standards of personal hygiene. The filmís central joke is that he is, in reality, quite earthy behind his fastidious facade, able to swear like a trouper when crossed, but equally capable of charming everyone Ė from difficult old dowagers through to thuggish prison inmates.

The other star of the show is the production design, and the way each shot is composed with an eye to style and comedy. The numerous model shots are (I hope) deliberately artificial, and a ski-and-toboggan chase knowingly ridiculous. It is, very self-consciously, a feast for the eyes.

Anderson is often praised for his visual originality, but heís the polar opposite of someone like Martin Scorsese, a master of the moving camera. Anderson cultivates a kind of jokey immobility in his framings, reminiscent of the silent era (when cameras were mostly too bulky to move) and the quirky, low-budget pictures of Canadian writer-director Guy Maddin.

I realize that few non-critics will have heard of Mr Maddin, so it is worth saying that his work is remarkably similar to Mr Andersonís oeuvre, and the more abstruse Canadian has been extremely influential on the younger American. Both share a slightly gruesome sense of humour and take delight in style, elegance and black-and-white character studies of what might be termed colourful characters. And both have a liking for the framings of silent cinema, a more boxy, narrow view of the world than the usual widescreen panorama.

At his worst, Maddin is superficial, fey, whimsical, mannered and kitsch Ė all epithets that could be used about Mr Andersonís work in general, and The Grand Budapest Hotel in particular. Both men create films that have problems sustaining a feature-film running time and might be described, only a little too cruelly, as tricksy tedium.

If Mr Anderson is less stylistically original than his admirers think him, his sensibility is also a great deal less sophisticated. The nadir of Andersonís 2007 film The Darjeeling Limited, epitomising its crassness, complacency and insularity, came when three Americans became involved in the accidental death of an Indian boy, and the awful realisation dawned on the audience that we were meant to care not about the dead child or his family, but about the humanising effect of the death on our self-regarding western heroes.

The same kind of stultifying insensitivity happens here. If The Grand Budapest Hotel has an underlying theme, itís the fear of fascism. The threat that hangs over the hotel and its concierge is the oncoming Second World War, and the film reeks of nostalgia for a more elegant era.

Films such as To Be or Not to Be (by Ernst Lubitsch) and The Great Dictator (by Charlie Chaplin) dared to satirise fascism head-on. The Grand Budapest Hotel is content to be lightweight screwball comedy Ė a gay confection.

Anderson has stated that he was inspired by the writing of Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), an Austrian Jew who fled when Hitler came to power, had mixed literary fortunes in Britain and America, and committed suicide in Brazil at a moment when he feared the Nazis were taking over the world.

Zweig prized peace, dignity and learning; Anderson coarsens this into a nostalgia for old-world panache. The nearest to Zweigian emotional depth in the film comes when Monsieur Gustave learns that the bellboy is a refugee from a previous war, who has only narrowly escaped torture in the Middle East.

The vast majority of the film takes place in a world observed with camp, emotionally chilly detachment. Even the final voice-over, which spells out the astonishingly bleak, non-comedic fates of two leading characters, is flat and unemotional, and gives way to jolly balalaika music and a playful credit sequence.

If youíre going to be that glib and superficial, you need to be extraordinarily funny and sophisticated. Oscar Wilde carried it off in The Importance of Being Earnest. Ernst Lubitsch managed it in his black-and-white films of the pre-war era. Some of the best musicals, such as My Fair Lady and A Little Night Music, achieve the same magical feeling of lightness and depth. Wes Anderson isnít remotely in that class.

Instead of verbal wit, Anderson offers swear-words. His dream of pre-war Europe comes across as not only airless and affected, but unconsciously provincial and touristy - not so much a critique of fascism and an expression of profound loss, as the self-indulgent maunderings of a camp, cossetted, Hollywood window-dresser with an unaccountable hankering for pink lederhosen. He canít see the woods for the twee.

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