WES Anderson’s inimitably imagined and meticulously crafted stories are not fantasies, per se, yet they see the world through a fantastical prism that one imagines a highly imaginative child might possess. Perhaps that’s why, though he doesn’t make children’s films, he makes children of many of us, eager for the sort of escapism that Anderson, alone, provides.
The director’s whimsical style is an acquired taste. But when he’s on the money, as he is with The Grand Budapest Hotel, he’s irresistible.
This is the sort of adventure commonly seen in the thirties or forties, complete with eccentric characters, murder, conspiracy, secret societies, alpine chases, prison breaks and exotic locales, laced with a little romance and told against a backdrop of impending war. But the mixing of this heady concoction is unmistakably Anderson’s.
At its heart is the splendid creation Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), concierge of the eponymous hotel, located in a spa town in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka on the eve of WWII. Gustave is a rum chap, staunchly good at his job – authoritative, precise, efficient, all-seeing – yet with a few peccadilloes. He swears like a trooper, for one. He’s vain, never stepping out unless drenched in his favourite cologne, l’air d’panache. And he has a penchant for his elderly female guests.
When one such octogenarian flame, Madame D (a fabulously grotesque Tilda Swinton) drops dead, Gustave becomes the recipient of her most valuable painting – much to the chagrin of the old lady’s money-grabbing family, led by the evil Dmitri (Adrien Brody), who will kill to get it back.
And so, with trusty bellboy and protégé Zero (Tony Revolori) by his side, and as fascists start to make their presence felt in his country, Gustave H goes on the run.
Into the action comes a dazzling array of characters, among them a military policeman (Edward Norton), Dmitri’s murderous henchman (Willem Dafoe), a lawyer with a dash of Freud in his beard (Jeff Goldblum) and the Society of the Crossed Keys (Bill Murray amongst them), an order of concierges serving at the best hotels around the world, which comes to Gustave’s assistance.
Many of these actors are Anderson regulars. Fiennes is new to the fold, but born to it, exercising rarely seen comedic chops in a performance that is perfectly pitched between vanity and humanity, decorum and anarchy. Few speak as well as Fiennes, and his diction alone makes the character at once hilariously silly and disarmingly touching.
The film’s production design verges on animation sometimes, not least when miniature models are used to convey the exterior of the hotel and in a tremendous ski chase. But anyone who’s visited one of those chocolate boxy Eastern European towns will recognise the genuine Old World that is recreated throughout.
As always, beneath the film’s heightened façade lay serious themes. Families, dysfunctional or adopted have always been in the mix, from Rushmore, through to Moonrise Kingdom. Here, Gustave is the paterfamilias of the hotel family, while to the young, immigrant Zero his role segues from that of father figure to brother – in keeping with the boy’s growing experience – and always an inspiration.
Storytelling itself is another recurrent theme. And we view Gustave’s adventures through two layers of recollection, first that of a writer in the Eighties (Tom Wilkinson), recalling how his younger self (Jude Law) once met the older Zero, in the fading hotel of the Sixties, who himself recounts the story of his youth. The construct highlights our sense of entering a vanished world, one which will be undone by the ravages of war.
This review first appeared in The Sunday Herald