Film review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Tom Wilkinson, Tony Revolori, centre, and Owen Wilson in "The Grand Budapest Hotel." Picture: AP
Tom Wilkinson, Tony Revolori, centre, and Owen Wilson in "The Grand Budapest Hotel." Picture: AP
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Enter The Grand Budapest Hotel, and discover director Wes Anderson at his best, writes Alistair Harkness

The Grand Budapest Hotel (15)

Directed by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Tony Revolori

Rating: * * * * *

Towards the end of Wes Anderson’s new movie, a character says of its protagonist: “His world had vanished long before he entered it, but he sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace.” It’s a reference to the way Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the wonderfully fastidious concierge of the eponymous hotel, maintains an unflappable determination to uphold the decorum of the Grand Budapest’s golden age (a determination that triggers the high-spirited interwar adventure that follows). But it could just as easily refer to Anderson himself.

From his debut feature, Bottle Rocket, through the likes of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr Fox and 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, he’s thrived as a filmmaker by creating insular, precision-engineered worlds that feel somewhat out of time, yet remain tethered to something palpable and real, ensuring that for all their quirks there’s a sadness that makes the surface whimsy of his best work feel like a noble response to the chaos of the real world.

The Grand Budapest Hotel certainly counts among his best work. Simultaneously his most comical and his most serious film to date, it’s a ribald farce in which the forces of history can’t help but up the stakes for all concerned. It’s also his most highly designed film (the hotel itself is a retro wonder in which Anderson takes every opportunity to luxuriate), and yet somehow it feels like his loosest and most freewheeling adventure – a sort of a shaggy-dog story told with manic verve and the narrative dexterity of a meticulously plotted mystery.

Set for the most part in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka in the run-up to the outbreak of the Second World War, the story revolves around the liberally perfumed Gustave and his efforts to clear his name after being accused of murder by the unscrupulous family of his recently deceased 84-year-old benefactor, and occasional lover, Madam D (“I’ve had older”, he quips of his crinkly paramour, amusingly played by a caked-in-prosthetics Tilda Swinton). That basic set-up provides a solid foundation for the richly detailed caper that follows as Gustave and his protégé, a lobby boy by the name of Zero Mustapha (newcomer Tony Revolori), steal a priceless painting and find themselves on the run from a police inspector (Edward Norton), some fascist death squads, and a leather-clad henchman with a disregard for people’s fingers (Willem Dafoe, looking like the Grim Reaper).

Featuring jailbreaks, a hotel lobby gun battle, and a snow-bound chase sequence, the film should satisfy the curiosity of anyone who’s ever wondered what a Wes Anderson Bond movie might look like. But it’s the brilliantly realised characters who provide the most delight, with Anderson’s ever-expanding stock company of actors checking into The Grand Budapest Hotel at unexpected moments for highly amusing cameos (an underground cabal of concierges headed up by Bill Murray is especially funny, as is Harvey Keitel’s appearance as a prison inmate impressed by Gustave’s impeccable manners).

It is Fiennes’s Gustave, though, who proves the biggest treat. In Bruges aside, the actor’s past film work and past interviews have never suggested he had much of a sense of humour, let alone such a finely tuned set of comic skills, so his performance here is truly revelatory. Embracing with gusto Gustave’s penchant for unexpected profanity, as well as the character’s amorphous sexual proclivities, he’s funny and flippant, and a complete natural when it comes to delivering Anderson’s screwball dialogue, which is both affected and affecting, couching in layers of delicately nuanced irony a great sadness and anger at fascism’s imminent spread across Europe.

Anderson accomplishes all this with an ambition rare in modern filmmaking, deploying different aspect ratios and framing devices to tell Gustav’s elaborate and wilfully convoluted narrative. Beginning in 1985 with a writer (Tom Wilkinson) reminiscing about his own youth idling around the Grand Budapest Hotel, it then jumps back again to 1968, where the writer, now played by Jude Law, encounters the grown-up Mustapha (F Murray Abraham), who regales him with his own story of his adventures with Gustav in the 1930s, the flashbacks for which comprise the bulk of the film.

This constant refracting of history through the memories of others – inspired, as an end-title card informs us, by the writings of the Jewish author Stefan Zweig, who fled Austria just as Hitler was coming to power – allows Anderson to subtly comment on the need to keep stories alive as a way of ensuring the past, no matter how inconsequential-seeming, is not forgotten. The civility with which Gustav conducts his life, after all, stands in marked contrast to barbarity of what’s coming and Anderson’s ability to let frivolity and real-world anxiety co-exist in the same frame is a sign of a filmmaker with complete mastery of his craft. Wonderful stuff.

300: Rise of an Empire (15)

Directed by: Noam Murro

Starring: Eva Green, Sullivan Stapleton, Jack O’Connell, Lena Headey

Rating: * * *

It’s not often one bemoans the lack of Gerard Butler on the big screen, but when his digitised visage pops up in 300: Rise of an Empire, it’s a reminder of one of the major things this follow-up to his blockbuster breakthrough lacks: a male lead with enough burly B-movie brawn to withstand its inherent campiness.

Instead the film offers up Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton, one of the supporting players in Animal Kingdom, but not someone necessarily blessed in the charisma department, certainly not enough to deliver rousing speeches while dressed in leather pants. He plays Themistocles, an Athenian general trying to unite Greece in order to defend it against the pierced Persian god Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his million-strong army, which, you may recall, took out King Leonidas (Butler) and his fellow Spartans in the previous movie. This film takes place in the same timeline, making the story neither a prequel nor a sequel, but a sort of rogue subplot that has been expanded to envelop the events of the first film and allow the producers – among them 300 director Zack Snyder (also this film’s co-writer) – to get round the tricky problem of following up a box-office hit when the hero has inconveniently died at the end.

For much of Rise of an Empire, then, the Leonidas-led Battle of Thermopylae is raging off-screen while we’re party to the Battle of Artemisium: a concurrent bout of against-the-odds combat in which Themistocles leads a naval campaign against Xerxes’s vast fleet, fast approaching Greece on the storm-ridden Aegean Sea. With Xerxes otherwise engaged in taking out the Spartans, his ships are under the control of the Greek-born Artemisia (Eva Green), his second-in-command, and also, it turns out, his surrogate sister. Having been raised by the father of Xerxes after her own family were slaughtered by Greeks when she was a child, her life-long hatred of her own people has fuelled both her warrior instincts and her determination to help the Persians conquer her former homeland.

The meatiness of that backstory is a sign that Artemisia is the film’s real focal point and so it proves, with Eva Green relishing the chance to chew the (digital) scenery as she severs heads with the relish of a Highlander fan and delivers withering put-downs to her male counterparts (“You fight harder than you f***,” she tells Themistocles in one of the film’s few inspired verbal exchanges). That’s all to the good of the film, as is the return of Lena Headey as Leonidas’s wife, Queen Gorgo. Serving as both this film’s narrator and a more active participant in the battle-heavy finale, her role has been beefed up this time, to the point where she no longer feels like she’s just there to counter the homoerotic overtones of a film that was basically an extended display of man-flesh.

Both actresses certainly relieve the tedium of watching Stapleton, although to be fair, even the likes of rising Brit star Jack O’Connell (making his blockbuster debut as the battle-hungry son of Themistocles’ best friend) can’t prevent the ripe dialogue grinding the Athenians’ scenes to a halt. Visually, though, the film again makes dynamic use of its digital sets, and director Noam Murro delivers enough body gouging fights and gloopy arterial spurts to make this a distracting, if never entirely satisfying, slice of comic-book silliness.

Stranger by the Lake (18)

Directed by: Alain Guiraudie Starring: Pierre Deladonchamps, Patrick d’Assumçao, Jérôme Chappatte, Christophe Paou

Rating: * * * *

There are shades of Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol and the novels of Patricia Highsmith in this noirish tale about a young gay man who becomes embroiled in a dangerous relationship. Getting his kicks from hooking up with strangers at a lakeside cruising spot in rural France, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) clearly has a bit of a risk addiction, enjoying the erotic charge of anonymous sex and casual too about the use of protection. But when he meets Michel (Christophe Paou), this is taken to another level: instantly attracted to him, he falls hard and can’t stop himself from seeing him, even when it becomes apparent that doing so might have serious consequences for his own life.

French writer/director Alain Guiraudie is canny about the release of information here, filming a turning-point moment of violence with the same matter-of-fact detachment that he uses to shoot Stranger by the Lake’s many explicit sexual encounters. The result is a film devoid of prurience and full of psychological nuance, something that’s intensified as a police investigation brings to the film the baffled perspective of a straight detective (Jérôme Chappatte) unable to fathom why this particular subculture can’t provide him with the information he needs when voyeurism and intimacy are intrinsic to its members’ way of life.

More insight comes via the platonic relationship Franck strikes up with the inscrutable Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), a portly, middle-aged onlooker who spends his days by the lake quietly observing the carnally charged activity through curious but non-judgmental eyes.

Set mostly during daylight, the film’s sun-kissed camerawork leaves nothing to the imagination when it comes to depicting the many rituals involved all this alfresco fornication and Guiraudie injects the early stages of the film with plenty of droll humour too, ending libidinous encounters in amusingly humdrum ways, or featuring clueless straight men wandering into the surrounding woods in the mistaken belief that women frequent the area too. The playful tone is deliberate, making what follows all the more shocking, not just for the severity of the crime being investigated, but the business-as-usual behaviour of the regulars in its immediate aftermath.

It’s all a long way from Cruising, William Friedkin’s willfully sleazy thriller about a killer stalking the New York gay scene. Guiraudie’s approach is more akin to the precision of a Michael Haneke film, although mercifully without the prescriptive, finger-wagging tone that frequently blights the Austrian auteur’s most nerve-shredding work.

Ratcheting up the tension in ways that are palpable but never obvious, Guiraudie isolates and interrogates the danger of desire that has been the bedrock of so many thrillers, making it uncomfortably real with a disturbing and ambiguous conclusion that reinforces the irrational way it affects behaviour.