Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel might be Wes Anderson's best film, unless you think a different one is better.

It seems like all reviews of any film by Wes Anderson begin with some wringing of hands, and the writer’s own declaration of either loving or hating his work. His style is so different to anybody else currently working and seems to provoke such extreme opinions either for or against that this opening mea culpa is just something you have to do. I love his films. I love his short films, I love his adverts, I love what I’ve seen of everything he’s ever done. I’m a fan. You can tell a lot about somebody by the order in which they rank his films, whether they prefer the exotic sentimentalism of The Darjeeling Limited or the detached surrealism of The Life Aquatic, and for all the anti-Andersonism out there, I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t like a single one of his films.

The Grand Budapest Hotel plays like a Wes Anderson best-of. Whereas Moonrise Kingdom occasionally dispensed with the style to take on real emotions, Budapest Hotel packs everything we’ve come to know and love from him – the perfectly articulated dialogue, the just-so, almost miniature world, great costumes, static cinematography – and develops everything a step further. It feels like a major development in his occasionally suffocating style, and you get the impression that he is so at ease with his way of doing things that he feels comfortable enough to mess with audience expectations. I’d compare watching a Wes Anderson film to putting on a pair of goggles that allow you to peer into the world as he sees it. I actually find myself wondering how a prison break would look in his hands, or a ski chase, and then it’s so obvious when you see it that of course, that’s how he’d do it. It’s like his style already exists, the world he creates already exists, and he’s just making windows for us all to see into it. That’s how well he renders this universe.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is an old fashioned caper in the truest sense of the world – it’s a misadventure across many state lines, through a fictionalised Europe ravaged between wars. The lion’s share of the action takes place in the nation state of Zubrowka, but that’s a formality really – the location has no bearing on the action within, only to justify the many encounters with fictional armies. Anderson goes to great pains to make clear that this is fictional, taking place in a distant time – the meat of the film is a remembrance of a remembrance – but this doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable or affecting. Ralph Fiennes is given a rare comic outing, racing around as Gustave H., concierge and ostensibly the public face of the hotel. He has many loyal guests, and enjoys them all in separate ways, but when he’s made a suspect in the murder of one of them, he goes on the run with his loyal lobby boy, Zero.

The film has a hell of a cast – besides Fiennes there’s appearances from Jude Law, Jason Schwarzmann, Saorsie Ronan, Adrien Brody, Ed Norton, Tilda Swinton, Willem Defoe, Jeff Goldblum, F. Murray Abraham, and cameos from Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Mathieu Almaric, Owen Wilson and Harvey Keitel – as you’d expect, but he has such a deft touch that the presence of all these stars doesn’t seem to bog the film down at all. Much of this is due to Fiennes, but special credit should be given to Tony Revolori, whose Zero Mustafa provides a perfect counterfoil to the excesses of Gustave H. He brings the film down to Earth when it threatens to wheel off into Andersonian excess, and Zero’s relationship with Ronan’s Agatha gives the film its heart and soul. That said, Fiennes’s performance is always front and centre, onscreen for the vast majority of the time, and the strength and depth of feeling he creates in a character that manages to be both sentimental and affectionate, then vain and quick to anger, is impressive. His Gustave H. is always unfailingly polite with a taste for the high life, though not too good to rough it on occasion – much deeper than he had any right to be, in other words; without the trifecta of Gustave H., Zero and Agatha,  it’d be the cinematic equivalent of a cuckoo clock – beautifully rendered, but more impressive as a work of craft than art. Where you rank it in his canon is up to you, and while for me it fails to reach the dizzying heights of The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic, I’d say it’s a stronger effort than Moonrise Kingdom (which I also loved).

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