You can tell a lot about the amount of respect and creative clout a director has by the well-known actors they can afford to sneak into tiny supporting roles. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s reputation is such that he can hire Jeff Goldblum to appear in a handful of (admittedly brilliant) scenes as a bespectacled solicitor, a latex-clad Tilda Swinton for a matter of seconds as a wealthy dowager, and Harvey Keitel as a tattooed convict – and that’s just a small sample of The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s star-encrusted cast.
Aside from Anderson’s obvious stature as a filmmaker, the possible reason such actors (and many more besides) queue up to appear in a film like The Grand Budapest Hotel is because he can make every character, large or small, leap out of the screen. Tilda Swinton shows up on the screen for a matter of seconds, but her extraordinary countenance is such that you can still recall exactly what she looks like when the end credits have rolled 100 or so minutes later.
More than any other Anderson film so far – even more so than his stop motion adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox – The Grand Budapest Hotel is a ripping adventure yarn of Tintin proportions. And it’s a testament to Anderson’s skill that he can tell a lengthy story featuring dozens of characters and an absurdly convoluted plot, and make it whistle by in two hours where most other directors would cheerfully stretch to three.
Here, Ralph Fiennes plays Gustav, a raffish, garrulous concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, located in a fictional country somewhere in the middle of Europe. Gustav’s effusive personality – not to mention his indiscriminate relationships with his guests – is the key to the lavish hotel’s success, as rich guests come from far and wide to be flattered and sometimes seduced by their silver-tongued host.
Around the time that new, fresh-faced bellboy Zero (Tony Revolori) arrives on the payroll, Tilda Swinton’s rich dowager suddenly dies in her opulent mansion. With Zero in tow, Gustav heads to the country pile to hear the reading of the will, and discovers that not only has he been bequeathed a priceless painting by a Northern Renaissance artist, but he’s also been framed for murder by the dowager’s son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and his ruthless sidekick Jopling (Willem Dafoe, here channelling some of the Nosferatu role he played so memorably in Shadow Of The Vampire). With Gustav arrested, Zero attempts to help clear his master’s name, while Gustav uses his charm to organise a daring escape attempt from his Colditz-like prison.
There’s far, far more to the plot than this – as well as the 30s-era intrigue, there are two wrap around stories, one set in 1985 with Tom Wilkinson as an author, another set in the late 1960s with Jude Law as a younger version of the same author (though oddly with less hair than Wilkinson), a secret society of bellboys, monks, Ed Norton as a German policeman (this time choosing not to use the same iffy Teutonic accent he attempted in The Illusionist), plus a romantic subplot involving Saoirse Ronan as a baker.
It’s a complicated story, but Anderson makes deceptively light work of it, moving from comedy to pathos to moments of sudden violence with the kind of ease that’s all too easy to take for granted. For most, Anderson’s style as a filmmaker will be familiar by now, and he doesn’t branch out far beyond his usual bag of tricks here, but there’s no denying that he’s a distinctive and unique director with one of the most immediately recognisable styles of any filmmaker currently working.
His fantastical, pop-up book version of 1930s Europe – complete with a fictional fascist army roaming the frozen countryside – is something only Anderson could come up with, and like his most stylised films, The Grand Budapest Hotel feels as though it’s been designed with almost geometric precision.
Anderson’s exacting approach knocks some of the tension out of the handful of shoot-outs and chase scenes, but he’s really good at introducing abrupt jabs of violence and menace. The director’s fully-formed worlds seem cosy and soft around the edges, but occasionally, nasty things happen that pack a proper, visceral punch.
It’s the quality of the performances, though, that really sticks in the mind. Fiennes is on magnificent form as Gustav, and his screen chemistry with Tony Revolori’s sad-eyed bellboy is the beating heart in a witty, visually captivating and sometimes poignant film.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is out on the 7th March.
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