Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan
IE Rating: 4.5
It’s just like Wes Anderson to set his story in a fictitious East European, Alpine country, and then plot it around the ‘Grand Budapest’ hotel. Hungary may have nothing to do with Anderson’s Zubrowka. But Hungary, with its beautiful capital Budapest, is nothing if not a country often on the wrong side of history. Quite like Anderson’s Grand Budapest hotel here, perched improbably on a mountain peak as war comes close, and quite like its inhabitants, who revel within its old-world charms.
And that is why this may be the best work from Anderson, the whimsical filmmaker whose characters (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, The Darjeeling Ltd) inhabit a universe just one removed from ours — they are not us but we have all been there. This film will silence critics who accuse him of deploying his obsessive framing of scenes and stylised characters once too often, preferring them over substance. Here everything, including the painting-like effect, is in the cause of evoking a past that is fast disappearing. And Anderson, whose films always evoke the past even when set in unspecified times, has fun with it.
Let’s start with the candy-pink hotel in the midst of fir trees, its blood-red interiors, and its numerous, numerous brightly lit windows. Here is a dollhouse if ever there was one waiting to collapse on itself. But that’s before the camera moves in, into its bustling and busy corridors circa 1932, with its dowager countesses and eccentric clients, its solemn bellboys and silent lift operators, and its eager lobby boy Zero Mustafa (Revolori) and lively concierge M Gustave (Fiennes). With those setpieces alone, the film creates a world of the ill-equipped rich and the unseen hands that keep it running.
Murder, love and violence enter this world when a very, very rich old woman Gustave is having an affair with — among the many thus obliged with his bedside service — suddenly dies. Madame D (an unrecognisable Tilda Swinton) bequeaths Gustave a precious painting, leaving her son Dmitry (Brody) boiling. As Dmitry vows revenge, Gustave finds himself implicated for Madame D’s murder. His loyal bellboy Mustafa and Mustafa’s pretty baker girlfriend Agatha (Ronan) now must find a way to get justice.
All this happens while WWII is slowly crawling up towards Zebrowka, with Mustafa twice hauled up by German-like troops for not carrying the right papers.
There’s poisoning, beheading, stabbing, and cutting of fingers as Dmitry’s henchman Joplin (Dafoe, evil) chases the painting Gustave and Mustafa have secreted away. There’s a chase around Madame D’s house where doors open up onto more doors (in another dollhouse-like effect), there’s a prison escape using improbably long ladders, and there’s a madcap race down a snowclad mountain that’s freezing even to look at.
However, essentially the film is about the world within the Grand Budapest hotel’s walls, and about the improbable relationships it nestles. Whether it’s Gustave and Madame D, Gustave and an SS-like officer (Norton), Gustave and the concierges of the world’s most exclusive spaces, Mustafa and Agatha or, most importantly, Gustave and Mustafa. The bellboy is an immigrant from another fictitious country in the Middle East who paints on a thin moustache to fit in initially. The concierge is a man well groomed now in the ways of the world he has been trained to serve, including never stepping out without being bathed in perfume.
Gustave is both kind and greedy, mindful of own stature as well as of those below him, dutiful and wayward, loyal and unfaithful, and Fiennes bring it all out beautifully with just the right touch of comedy that Anderson is aiming for.
Revolori too is a real find as Mustafa, devoted and observant to a fault. The grown-up Mustafa is played by an equally impressive Abraham.
Anderson’s regulars populate the rest of the film, even turning in for roles of a second or two.
The film credits the writings of Viennese writer Stephan Zweig as inspiration. There are many more it alludes to. However, the film essentially belongs to only Anderson — in not just its name, but also in the name of Zero Mustafa (with parallels to immigrant actor Zero Mostel blacklisted in the McCarthy era), in the Mexico-shaped birthmark on Agatha’s cheek, and in the painting at the centre of the story, of a boy at the cusp of manhood holding an apple in his hand.
Just bite, won’t you?