THE MAGNIFICENT ANDERSON
When Joss Whedon’s The Avengers was released in 2012, it was praised for being “the closest a filmmaker had ever come to recreating the experience of reading a comic book on screen”. Likewise, watching any one of Wes Anderson’s films feels like reading a great American novel, with expertly crafted descriptions of every character, location and prop, and an atmosphere so engaging that you feel as if you are reading the words being spoken off a page. The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s first foray into semi-fictional European history, is his most novelistic film to date, in particular due to its Russian Doll framing device, which mirrors David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, as narrative doors open to reveal new periods and sets of characters before closing again.
To some cynics, it may look as if Hotel is Anderson’s Monuments Men, a film with a seemingly ideal ensemble cast, but none of whom actually try to act and are hampered by a weak script. However, it is anything but. All of Anderson’s friends and past collaborators who turn up for very small cameos really do bring what is available of their A-game. Why? Because working with Anderson has, for many of them, either made (in the case of Jason Schwartzman) or rejuvenated (Bill Murray, Bob Balaban) their careers. For some (Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan), it’s just a chance to experience one of the most finely tuned and well-working directorial machines on Earth. All of these actors fill the screen with their unique characters of various shapes and sizes, but at the centre of the madness is The Grand Budapest Hotel itself, a deliciously iced cake of a building the exterior of which resembles a painting, the interior appearing to have been stolen from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons with its long corridors, vast ballrooms and weaving staircases. Jude Law’s Young Writer is staying when he encounters a mysterious old man (F. Murray Abraham) who, upon being revealed as the owner of the hotel, recounts the story of his relationship with the building to Law. We then revert to Abraham’s younger self (newcomer Tony Revolori, in arguably the best debut performance since Moonrise Kingdom‘s Gilman and Hayward), lobby boy during wartime and protégé to Ralph Fiennes equally sleazy and charming M. Gustave.
Fiennes’ performance isn’t so much a revelation as the climax to several years of career-defining roles that have seen him go from playing The Period Drama Villain to The Period Drama Hero to Fantasy Villain With CGI Face. His poetry quoting and faux laughing are a brilliant cover as he woos elderly women (the most notable of which is played by Swinton) and steals a valuable painting to which he only has partial ownership in order to give himself and Revolori’s Zero a better life. Amongst the seemingly endless cameos, it is primarily Willem Dafoe and Ed Norton who truly stand out, as a hired goon and army commander, respectively, both hamming it up in the best way imaginable. Adrien Brody is unfortunately miscast as the film’s primary antagonist, and Harvey Keitel sadly underused in an understandably short turn. The biggest problem with the cast is certainly the choosing of the aforementioned Ronan as Zero’s love interest. As a citizen of the country where Ronan is most idolized (her native Ireland), I can say from a front row perspective that she is one of the most overrated actors of her generation, constantly stealing roles from better young actors in potentially superior films. I dearly hope Anderson doesn’t use her in such a big role (or in any role, for that matter) again.
After watching Hotel, it becomes clear that Moonrise Kingdom was Anderson’s most personal film, and may always be his most moving. With its instantly relatable tale of quirky childhood love and the youthful perspective on the ridiculous behaviour of the surrounding adults, Kingdom may have been Anderson’s masterpiece. Hotel isn’t even a contender for his best film, seriously lacking the depth of Kingdom or Tennenbaums or the charm of Rushmore or Mr Fox. However, none of the director’s usual magic is lost amongst the Film of Actors and Sets, especially when the Méliès-esque paper maché landscapes transition into an adorably cheap action-packed chase, and a small animated Russian dancer appears halfway through the end credits. It will most likely improve upon multiple viewing, and is unarguably another great nail in Anderson’s box of great films, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is under no circumstances a “classic”.