The Grand Budapest Hotel

Tonight, Emma and I went to see Wes Anderson‘s new film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ at Quad. As you may have noticed, I’ve been in the midst of a big Anderson phase lately, there’s something about his transrealism that connects with my current rather fantastical life state.

I won’t be revealing any major plot points in this review so you can relax.

The film is about a grand hotel and its beating heart, the concierge M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes. As the hotel hangs on Gustave, the film hangs on Fiennes. A wrong foot from him and the whole lot would come crashing down, particularly as the narrative is split through at least two layers of flashback and held with another book. Such narrative conceits can be bewildering without an anchor but Fiennes provides that beautifully. His Gustave is by turns sophisticated, louche, poetic and profane. All these aspects of the character are brought together so naturally, so gracefully that it’s a joy to watch. Fiennes can slip from slapstick broad comedy to moments which literally had me in tears, all in the same scene.

Around Fiennes is a cast of major stars like Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Saorirse Ronan, Jeff Goldlbum, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody and… well, practically everyone ever. If I had to make any criticism of TGBH, it’s that sometimes I occasionally felt my immersion disturbed by playing spot the famous star, a little similarly to watching Cloud Atlas. I also feel sorry for unknown, up-and-coming actors: not really much chance of a look in beyond a bit part in an Anderson film as even a passing one-line taxi driver would probably end up being Liam Neeson or George Clooney.

That being said, the role of Gustave’s lobby boy and personal valet Zero is played by relative newcomer Tony Revolori and his newness does shake things up. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that he’s already a wonderful actor at just eighteen. I wish we’d got more screen time for Saorirse Ronan but whatever she had, she owned, as always.

So, it’s a hotel, there are comical, borderline farcical character, there are shenanigans. Is it just a very lavish Fawlty Towers?

Well, yes and no and yes. TGBH isn’t a sitcom, there is no canned laughter, the setup isn’t as glib as television. However, like the best moments of Fawlty Towers, which relied on Cleese transcending comedy to somewhere darker and disturbingly more primal, this film manages to be both funny and terrifying. In the cinema, we were bowling along merrily, chortling at the funny people doing humorous things and then, out of nowhere, would come a moment which de-railed us. Easy laughter was replaced by nervous laughter, I could hear people thinking ‘hold the fuck up ~ I thought this was a comedy? HIS HAND! WHAT?’

TGBH deals with more than the convoluted flouting of daily routine / established taboos / hierarchical relationships. It deals with love, war, humanity and, above all, the passing of things. In this distinction, it leaves farce behind and becomes tragedy, though we may still be laughing and we don’t know why as it isn’t funny. I’m not claiming that it’s attempting to do what the film that made Fiennes’ name, ‘Schindler’s List, did, twenty-one years ago but I am saying that this isn’t zany, madcap fluff, which is how Anderson is often stereotyped. There is one scene near the end where I actually had to close my eyes because I didn’t want to see what came next. Thankfully, Anderson chose not to show it and I feel that fits perfectly with the musings about civilisation that Gustave declaims.

Even though it’s only ninety-nine minutes long, so much happens that it feels like you’ve been away longer. Time stretches but not through boredom, through the absorption of so much detail at such a pace, both emotionally and visually. The mise-en-scene of TGBH is obesely, decadently, drippingly gorgeous. The different eras are delineated by very different colour palettes and this is reinforced by Anderson choosing historically-appropriate frame ratios. The composition of every shot is a painting, the quality of light that Robert Yeoman captures is like kisses on every prop and face. The shots are tiny dances, moving through a scene with the actors, or stopping to emphasise their situational conflict. All of this before we even get to the marvellous words of one of the sharpest scripts we’ll get this year, or probably any year.

The totality of this is that ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is Anderson’s most complex film to date. It is in parts comedy, anti-violence/war fable, ‘Inception’-like nested narrative, mystery and, finally, sumptuous opera with no songs. It’s ambitions are met and surpassed without the viewer even noticing the ride they’ve been hoodwinked into taking. Like all Anderson’s work, it creates a world which is ours and yet is not, a tangent which cuts our world and spills out funny things, certainly, but also things we ignore and try to kick back into the shadows.

Give it some of your time. I believe you will love it.