The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Grand Budapest Hotel

Reviewed by Tom Steward.

Director Wes Anderson
Length 99 mins
Certificate 15 / R
Rating *********-
Filmmaking: 5  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson’s first crime caper since his debut feature Bottle Rocket (1996) - unless you count Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) - which is surprising given how dynamic and detail-heavy his filmmaking is. The movie exhibits a noticeable lightness of touch conspicuously lacking in the director’s recent movies, with plotting and characterisation conceived in the name of fun rather than portentousness. This is still the Wes Anderson who thrives on tonal incongruity, so don’t be drawn into a false sense of security with the apparent upbeat resolution to the story. And it is still a Wes Anderson movie so expect flat, symmetrical, colourful compositions with autistic levels of content inside them. But we are starting to see a Wes Anderson that doesn’t mind his frames being messed up quite so much, and who seems liberated by relinquishing his own trademark exactitude.

A teenage fan approaches the public shrine of a great author carrying his book The Grand Budapest Hotel. The author narrates the book (or rather the experience that inspired it) first as an ageing father (Tom Wilkinson) and then as a young man (Jude Law). In the recollection, the author is an off-season guest at the faded Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional European republic of Zubrowka. Having dinner with owner Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), he is told the story of how Moustafa came to own the hotel. Moustafa tells the author of his time as lobby boy of the hotel (as Tony Revolori) in its glory days under the mentorship of concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). He proceeds to tell a tale of murder, art theft, family fortunes and prison breaks, explaining how these two very different men grew so close over the years.

As you can see from this synopsis, there are many intersecting layers of narration in the movie, and it’s to Anderson’s credit that these never impede the flow or thrilling pace. It’s more of a love letter to storytelling and oral history than postmodern convolution, and carries a devotion to the inherent power of authorship that suggests the movie doesn’t really care if its narrators are reliable or not. The movie is shot through with famous cinematic faces - most of them in the Anderson repertory company - in cameo turns, bringing instant delight with the minimum of screen time. Thankfully, these do not distract us from the elegantly portrayed and deftly poignant relationship between Gustave and Moustafa, or the finely-judged double act between Revolori and Fiennes. Fiennes is particularly magnificent, bringing to bear his facility for comedy and character contradictions in a performance easily as good as his infrequent best.

Anderson demonstrates once again that he can create a fully-realised cinematic world out of flat surfaces, with two-dimensional compositions full of vibrancy, intricacy and nuance. In his hands, the overtly artificial model sets are as convincing and vivid as locations. There are some stylistic breakthroughs here, too. Anderson is starting to realise the potential of filming in depth, comically so in Gustave’s static single-shot escape from police through the hotel. He demonstrates far greater tolerance of disruption to the symmetry of his shots than ever before, whether through the dishevelled clutter of legal papers or a boy with a water pistol sending the camera off-centre. There are times when I wish Anderson had made more changes. I think the director’s signature shift to a heavier tone may have been a mistake here, as it serves only to upset a coherent mood with no improvement to the quality of the movie.

Alternate Take to follow soon...

This review was published on April 10, 2014.

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