Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson inhabits a world entirely of his own, where real life is amplified and sprinkled with magic dust as we’re taken on a journey into his wonderful imagination.

Anderson’s had a few wobbles recently, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is up there with his best – some would say (me) that it is his best. It’s utterly joyful despite the darkness that loiters in its shadows. It’s both hugely funny and quietly sad and never less than spell-bindingly charming.

Fittingly for a director who creates his own filmic world, The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in a fictional central European country, the Republic of Zubrowka, shortly before the Second World War (to continue the non-specific location, the encroaching Nazis are replaced by unnamed fascists).

The film is a triumph of storytelling even if the story being told is fairly slight. It begins with a  girl paying homage to the statue of The Author before picking up the unnamed writer’s memoir of his visit to the Grand Budapest Hotel in the early 1960s. We are then transported back to 1982, where The Author (a stonking five minutes with the always brilliant Tom Wilkinson) is grappling with this very book.

His reminiscences take us back to the visit to the now shabby Grand Budapest Hotel that inspired the book. The once palatial hotel is now tatty and largely empty, it’s decor peeling and its stately rooms resounding with the silence of the handful of lonely, solo guests that wander wordlessly through them.

Intrigued by the hotel’s decline, The Author (who back in the 1960s looked a lot like Jude Law) meets the owner, the melancholy Zero Mustafa in the once majestic Turkish Baths and over a three course meal in the hotel’s cavernous dining room The Author – and us – learn the story of the decline of Grand Budapest Hotel as Zero takes us back to the 1930s where where we meet M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and a young Zero (played brilliantly by newcomer Tony Revolori).

Ralph Fiennes, an actor I rarely find palatable (admittedly because he’s usually playing a sadistic bastard) is absolutely wonderful as Monsieur Gustave, the fey, flawed, but big-hearted concierge, a role he performs with perfumed military precision.

He’s a standout star in a film brimming with a cast of characters. There’s Tilda Swinton as M. Gustave’s 82-year-old lover whose death throws the concierge and his new recruit, Zero (who in 1932 was a fledgling lobby boy)  into the path of the silent, but deadly JG Jopling (Willem Dafoe) and a very angry Adrien Brody as her son Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis. Along the way we also encounter Harvey Keitel‘s naked torso, a priceless painting, a spell in jail and, of course, Bill Murray.

Anderson flirts with whimsy, but crucially The Grand Budapest Hotel is too funny and too clever to stray into twee territory. There’s also an aura of sadness and moments of violence that imbue the film with a weightiness that its jauntiness may at first disguise.

The film is beautifully shot, the elegance and symmetry of the hotel and the snowy mountains provide plenty of scope for sweeping panoramas that are interspersed Anderson’s trademark tight facials close-ups. The smudged, muted colours give the film a nostalgic feel and the four eras we move through are largely visually interchangeable. Stories, after all, don’t have a time frame.

by Suzanne Elliott

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Film Review: Summer In February

Summer in February

Dan Stevens and Emily Browning in Summer In February

I feel a bit of a fraud writing a film review as I am not much of a film fan. In my cultural league, films languish mid-table, somewhere above medieval art and modern dance. There are many films I like, but no movie has ever had a life changing effect on me in the way books and music have, or had me absorbed like a great piece of theatre, work of art or even (even!) a brilliant TV series.

With some notable exceptions, I find modern movies too often derivative and unimaginative, especially those adapted all-too clumsily from books. It’s an oft touted cliche that film adaptations of books are inferior to the original, but the only film I’ve enjoyed more than the original novel was Trainspotting and I suspect that had a lot to do with the soundtrack and Ewan McGregor.

Where books can be multi-layered, rich in detail and introspective, films are often one- dimensional, conventional and necessarily plot-driven, hitting viewers over the head with symbolism, character traits and spelling the details out to us like the popcorn-munching idiots they think we are.

Sometimes it’s simply Hollywood’s arrogance that ruins book adaptations, with directors and scriptwriters believing they can do a better job than, say, this jumped up writer called Thackery can do (what Mira Nair did to his Vanity Fair in her 2004 film still makes me angry years after subjecting myself to it).

I read Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February last year after hearing about a film version that was, at the time, being shot.

Intrigued by the synopsis I sought out the novel, keen to get in with my ‘but the book was better’ opinion before anyone else. The film, out this week, is scripted by Jonathan Smith himself, looks lovely and sticks pretty rigidly to the original story – although the skeletal version of it. Understandably, Smith reins in the details and focuses on the love triangle between Florence Carter-Wood, Alfred ‘AJ’ Munnings and our hero Gilbert Evans, while Laura and Harold Knight, Joey Carter-Wood are amongst the characters swept largely off the screen (a particular shame in Laura Knight’s case; she was an intriguing character and played by the brilliant Hattie Morahan could have been a scene-stealer). But romance and scenery are what sell cinema tickets and Summer in February has both in spades.

Based on a true story, the film follows the gentle, eminently sensible Gilbert Evans, an estate manager in the Cornwall coastal town of Lamorna. He’s resolutely middle of the road is our Gilbert, but he finds himself taken into the bosom of the bohemian artist set, in particular by the captivating horse-loving painter AJ Munnings. They have sing-alongs in pubs and matey chats while trotting on horseback along the beach, avoiding the life-drawing nude models. Then Florence Carter-Wood turns up as Australian Emily Browning whose lovely cheekbones and pouty lips soon bewitch both AJ and Gilbert. Their story – in short: a marriage, a death, a trip to London, lots of drinking, a bit of painting – all takes places against the beautiful backdrop of Lamorna which is everything you want from a Cornwall movie scene, all frothy waves, spectacular cliffs and a lovely sandy beach. Well played Cornwall.

The actors are all perfectly fine; no one does spurned-in-love puppy-dog sadness like Dan Stevens while Dominic Cooper, who I thought too slight, too young, too unassuming to play the demonstrative, overbearing, charismatic AJ Mannings strikes a good line between being a sexy bad boy and an oafish bore. I liked him; AJ isn’t a bad man, just one that lacks that sensitivity chip.  Emily Browning pouts beautifully and is winsome and fragile enough, but she’s concentrating so hard on her (very good) cut-glass English accent that for the most part she forgets to inject Florence with a personality.

Summer In February is lovely wet Sunday afternoon kind of film. The intensity and spell-binding passion and intrigue of the original may have been swept away like a sandcastle at high tide, but what’s left is pretty and enchanting. Just make sure you read the book too…

by Suzanne Elliott