Like the eponymous hotel in which it is set, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a quaint, ornately stylized, exquisite film populated by myriad of zany characters – not least Ralph Fiennes’s devilishly charming Gustave. The distinctive Wes Anderson-y aesthetic may not win many new fans among the unconverted, but for those familiar with his particular brand of meticulous whimsy, this may be Anderson’s most entertaining film since The Royal Tenenbaums.
Following a Russian Doll-like structure, cleverly accentuated by a reduction in aspect ratio for every step back in time, TGBH is presented as a story within a story. It starts with Tom Wilkinson’s The Author recounting the time he visited the hotel as a young man and encountered it’s unassuming owner, Zero, who in turn recounts the tale of the hotel’s heyday and that of its finest concierge, M. Gustave.
The hotel of 1932 is an exquisite design. In purposeful contrast to the 1960’s prison of beige, in 1932 the hotel is a vibrant canvas of pastel colours and ornate, antiquated furnishings that, like the famous oil painting which sets the plot in motion, feels utterly priceless.
There’s a charming artificiality about the handmade models and hand painted landscapes used for exterior shots, one that is always there to remind you that you’re being spun an elaborate yarn.
But what a yarn it is. TGBH’s story is basically a series of comic sketches spawned from his attempts to evade the law after being framed for the murder of one of the hotel’s wealthiest guests.
This pacey who-dunnit-cum-art-heist is not only hilariously silly but also boasts a surprising splurge of action. That the murders, shootouts, ski chases and prison breaks never feel incongruous to the style is testament to the attention to detail Anderson gives every scene.
Though it may be titled The Grand Budapest Hotel, this is absolutely Gustave’s story; the hotel acts as a metaphor and a framing device, barely glimpsed during the middle third. It’s fortunate, therefore, that Ralph Fiennes is the best thing in this film.
It seems comedy may be Fiennes’s hidden metier and he is excellent as the charismatic, liberally perfumed (with L’Air de Panache, natch) concierge, mastering the rapid-fire delivery of wit and somehow maintaining his refinement during frequent, sudden outbursts of profanity.
Much like his treasured hotel, everything about Gustave is precisely tailored to please his guests – especially if they’re old, blonde, insecure and, crucially, wealthy. In another’s hands Gustave could be despicably unctuous, but with Fiennes he is extraordinarily likeable, able to befriend those from all walks of life, like Harvey Keitel’s bald, tattooed prisoner and the hotel’s gauche lobby boy, Zero, who becomes his most trusted friend.
It’s also in Gustave’s character that most of the film’s underlying sadness rests. For all his dedication and good manners, Gustave’s sensibilities, like that of his hotel, are hopelessly out of date with a world changing dramatically at the outbreak of war. It’s unsurprising that neither man nor hotel last long under the invading fascists, and there’s something desperately sad about the way Gustave and his narrators cling on to their various losses of the past as the world around them forgets and moves on.
However, this is an almost imperceptible undertone that is easily forgotten in the elegant designs of this gloriously silly yarn. Yes, the emotional heft is there for those who care to look, but it seems Anderson is trying hard to distract you with pretty pictures and entertaining characters, and I think he’s succeeding too.
Runtime: 100 Minutes Genre: Comedy Released: March 7th 2014
Director: Wes Anderson Writers: Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody
Click here to watch the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel