Reviewed in Australia on 28 February 2018
The world of Wes Anderson is a strange place -- a place of slightly decayed elegance, wicked dark comedy and a light layer of bittersweetness.
And no movie seems to sum up that style as effectively as "The Grand Budapest Hotel." Anderson's eighth movie is like an antique music box -- an elaborate miniature world of smooth prettiness and Old World charm, with little dancing silver figures moving through their paces. The corkscrew quest of the main characters gets a bit slow at times, but the direction and acting are utter perfection.
A young girl appears at a cemetery monument, holding a book written by The Author (played by Jude Law as a young man, and Tom Wilkinson as an old one). The book tells of how he met the wildly wealthy Zero Moustafa (played by F. Murray Abraham as a young man, and Tony Revolori as a young one) at the Grand Budapest Hotel, and Zero's explanation of why -- despite his vast wealth -- he stays in a tiny cramped room even though he owns the place.
In his youth, Zero was a lobby boy working under Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel concierge who also lavished... um, "attention" on rich elderly blonde ladies. When Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) dies on a trip back home, Gustave and Zero show up for the will reading... and everyone is shocked (and angry) that she left the priceless "Boy with Apple" painting to Gustave. Her thuggish son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) is particularly displeased.
So Gustave sneaks "Boy With Apple" out, only to be accused of poisoning Madame D and thrown in prison. Around this time, the country also breaks out into civil war. With Zero's unflagging help, Gustave may have a chance to escape prison... but can the duo also escape a brass-knuckled assassin (Willem Dafoe), avoid the fascist army, buck murder charges AND get the painting back?
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is set in a Europe that never was. It's in a fictional country called Zubrowka, which seems to have a lot of snow, mountains and rich old ladies. This allows Wes Anderson to give the movie almost the air of a bittersweet fairy tale where happy endings don't last. Eventually someone dies, and all you can do is hold on to whatever memories of joy you once had.
But it's not all bittersweetness. Most of the story -- set within two separate frameworks -- is a wry, dark comic caper about serial murders and a valuable painting, which corkscrews around various wacky escapades before finally settling back at the titular hotel. Anderson wrings a lot of humor from the macabre (Deputy Vilmos Kovacs and his lost fingers), adding awkward whimsy into even the darkest escapade ("Who's got The Throat-Slitter?").
And it's simply... beautiful. Beautiful like a storybook that doesn't have to be realistic. The alpine scenery, the quaint little towns, the strangely alluring Grand Hotel Budapest -- both in the past (elegant and luxurious without being rococo) and the past-present (a slightly decayed citadel, like an aging dowager). While Anderson sticks with his static, centered shots and sharp transitions, he still manages to linger on the slightly unreal beauty of his sets.
It's also one of the few movies that has an all-star cast that actually WORKS, rather than just racking up studio points. Ralph Fiennes is simply perfect as Gustave, a man who is all contradictions -- noble and scheming, kindly and selfish, an adventurer who truly cares for the people he takes advantage of. And he clicks perfectly with Revolori, who plays a squire to Fiennes' knight -- an earnest young lad whose ambition seems to be to be a slightly more moral version of Gustave.
And all the smaller roles work beautifully too -- an unrecognizable Swinton (seriously, you can't even tell it's her), Law, Abraham, Edward Norton as a Communist commander, Jason Schwartzman, Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan as Zero's beloved, Jeff Goldblum, and Adrien Brody as a tantrum-throwing thug who has just enough quiet menace to avoid being silly.
It will take considerable effort from Wes Anderson to top "The Grand Budapest Hotel" -- an elegant, bittersweet little story within a frame whose gilding has started to flake off. Laugh, cry, and eat tiny little gourmet cakes.