Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Deep in the mountains of the republic of Zubrowka lies the Grand Budapest Hotel which, in the late 60s, lies in disrepair and guests are few and far between. However, in it's glory days in the 30s, it was home to one of the finest concierges of the day, Gustave H. Gustave spends his days courting a series of aging, wealthy blondes; one of whom is Madame D, who dies under mysterious circumstances and leaves a valuable painting, Boy with Apple, to Gustave, leaving her family enraged. Thus begins the family's quest to prove Gustave is Madame D's murderer and reclaim the painting for themselves. However, Gustave has a plan: He and his faithful lobby boy, Zero, have stolen the painting and hidden it, so when Gustave is arrested, it's down to Zero to formulate a plan to both escape and clear Gustave's name...

I love Wes Anderson and his films. I love his style of storytelling, his visual style, his colour palette, and his style of dialogue. It's unconventional, mainstream-indie cinema at its finest. If you're unclear as to who Anderson is, here's his filmography: Bottle Rocket. Rushmore. The Royal Tenenbaums. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The Darjeeling Limited. Fantastic Mr Fox. Moonrise Kingdom. And now, The Grand Budapest Hotel. All of his films are distinct, no-one makes films quite like Anderson, you know almost immediately whose film you're watching once you see one. However, The Grand Budapest Hotel is unlike any other Anderson film previous. Why? In the past, he's co-written his films with one of his friends. The Grand Budapest Hotel is his first solo writing venture, and it reveals an entirely different side to Anderson's sensibilities.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is, without a shadow of a doubt, Anderson's most adult film to date. This is definitely not a negative, but as much as there are still all the tell tale signs of this being an Anderson film, the screenplay makes this film the most non-Anderson Anderson film yet. Make sense? There's a lot more swearing in this than any of his other previous work, and there's a lot more references to sexuality and representations of naked human bodies. It makes you wonder how different his previous films might have been had he not had Owen Wilson or Jason Schwartzman or Noah Baumbach (his frequent co-writers) in the room with him. His distinctive style is still extremely evident however, nothing else has changed and that's a blessing because it makes The Grand Budapest Hotel another of his grand adventures made up of various minutia with a whole host of characters on board to deliver vital parts of the overriding story arc. I think that's one of the things I like most about Anderson's films: He always creates an entire town's worth of characters to create a grander scale in which to tell his story, rather than focusing on two central characters and only bringing in other characters for a spot of Basil Exposition.

With that being said, the lead character is played by an actor making his debut in an Anderson film, which is strange as the key roles are usually reserved for either his favoured co-collaborators or talented child actors making their debut. Alas, it falls to Ralph Fiennes to bring to life the eccentric Gustave H. and does so with aplomb. I never thought Fiennes had an ear for comedy, but perhaps all it took was the right script to convince him to step out of comfort zone and show another side of his acting skills. Along side him, Tony Revolori is the perfect straight man to compliment Fiennes' eccentric Gustave H. The pair of them share a great on-screen chemistry and it's evident they're enjoying the crazy adventure their characters go through as much as the audience did. Also along for the ride are a host of big name cameos, all of whom are surprisingly integral to the outcome of the film; there's no wastage here. Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, an uncredited Bill Murray, F. Murray Abraham, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Harvey Keitel, Adrian Brody and a terrifying Willem Dafoe are all great in their unique roles. Also, as a side note, I believe that Anderson has found the perfect bumbling yet commanding authority figure for his cinematic universe in Edward Norton. In both this and Moonrise Kingdom, Norton played an authority figure who was clearly in charge, but bumbled and became likeable. Don't be shocked to see Norton re-appear in Anderson's next project.

I think one of the things I like most about The Grand Budapest Hotel is the structure of the narrative: It's a story within a story within a story within a story. That's four layers. The film is told as if being read from a book by a young girl. The book concerns a mysterious author relaying the story of when he visited the hotel as a young man. The younger version of the author then retells the story told to him by the owner of the hotel whom he met upon his visit; the older Zero. The older Zero then tells the story of how he came to acquire ownership of The Grand Budapest Hotel and, in turn, the story of his mentor and closest friend, Gustave H. Who else would be brave enough to layer a story like that? All of this occurs in the first 10 minutes, by the way, so no spoilers. It clearly shows Anderson's fondness for the medium of storytelling, how a story can be told and retold to generation after generation and still have the same effect if told the right way; something I dare say Anderson has now perfected. Aside from this, the film is told in chapters as if from a book, much like his other films, with title cards introducing the next 'part' or 'chapter' with a brief descriptive title. Anderson's films are like reading different novels by the same author: You know his distinctive style, all the characters seem like they should know one another, it's broken down into easily manageable chapters, and they all take place within the same unmistakeable universe. Literally, the Wes Anderson colour palette does not change, the hotel itself is immediately recognisable as an Anderson creation.

Overall, The Grand Budapest Hotel is such a lovely and charming film, I find it hard to fault it, although I am biased as a fan. (I even got a copy of his out-of-print book shipped from America. I could sell it on eBay for a high price!) The plot never gets overly complicated, even when the characters on-screen make it out to be so. The characters, numerous as they are, never overwhelm the action and fit right in to the tone and pace of the story. The dialogue is somewhat different to the usual Anderson fare but an intriguing change of direction for the director. It's his most adult film to date, but it still has a child-like mentality at heart. I'm fascinated to find out where he goes from here.

Rating: ****1/2

Sunday, 2 March 2014


Academy Award Nominations: 4

  • Best Picture
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (Jeff Pope, Steve Coogan)
  • Best Actress (Judi Dench)
  • Best Original Score (Alexandre Desplat)

Philomena Lee has been keeping a terrible secret for 50 years: After a love affair as a young woman and falling pregnant, she is sent away to Sean Ross Abbey, where nuns make her work hard while raising her illegitimate son, but eventually the child is sent away and adopted. Philomena has been searching for him ever since, but only recently decides to tell her daughter. By chance, her daughter works as a waitress at a party attended by Martin Sixsmith, a recently fired former government advisor, who's looking for a new project. At first Martin rejects the idea of writing a 'human interest' story, but soon warms to it, and he and Philomena begin the search for her long lost son Anthony...

Philomena is the story of a number of talented actors and creators collaborating on the real-life tale of Philomena Lee, whose story was told and published by Martin Sixsmith back in 2009. First, the writers: Jeff Pope has had a highly successful career writing TV dramas for ITV including Pierrepoint and Dirty Filthy Love, whilst Steve Coogan is known worldwide as the writer and creator of Alan Partridge and other characters. Then, there's the stars: Steve Coogan assumes the role of Martin Sixsmith alongside Philomena Lee played by Dame Judi Dench, renowned as one of the world's finest actresses, appearing in the most recent Bond films, Shakespeare in Love and Mrs Brown. Then, the director: Stephen Frears has directed some of Britain's most famous film exports, films such as My Beautiful Launderette, Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen and now Philomena. All the elements are in place to take a charming story to the big screen, and they've done a wonderful job translating it.

This film is focused directly on the relationship between Philomena and Martin, with the hunt for her long lost son becoming inconsequential for well over the first half of the film. It's only as elements of Philomena's son's life are revealed that the plot focuses back to Philomena's struggle. In fact, it's because things shift in the middle of the second act that it's hard to pinpoint just which relationship this film is supposed to be about. Either way, both relationships rely heavily on the extraordinary story of Philomena Lee, which is told in a way which never becomes overly sentimental but is not a cold document of the facts either. Stephen Frears has filmed it wonderfully, and Coogan and Pope's screenplay tells the story of Philomena in a heartwrenching yet light hearted way. Also, the films has been wonderfully scored by Alexandre Desplat and helps enhance moments of whimsy and heaviness in equal measure. It's easy to see why the Weinsteins picked it up and championed it: It's extremely similar in style and form to The King's Speech, and clearly they were hoping for some form of repeat success.

It's not hard to see it being successful either; the strong female lead of Philomena Lee is excellently filled by Dame Judi Dench, one of the finest actresses in the world. A stubborn, deeply religious woman who just wants answers after 5 decades of holding this terrible secret, Dame Judi's performance is touching and underplayed, whilst also providing moments of light relief. As for Steve Coogan, the character of Martin Sixsmith is two dimensional in the film, and Coogan is the man to blame; either he underwrote the role, or failed to deliver the performance needed to match Dame Judi's dominating presence on screen. Either way, Sixsmith is never emotionally relateable and is a poor companion to Philomena Lee. Beyond that, there aren't any other stand out supporting characters, other than the evil nuns, who are so generic they could ahve come from any other motion picture where nuns are depicted as repressed and out of touch with humanity.

The main problem I have with this film is, I fear, in the writing. Where Pope and Coogan have received many a plaudit for their adaptation of Sixsmith's book, I feel that so much of their focus has gone into recreating Philomena for the big screen that they forgot to create any other character of depth to allow Philomena someone to create a rapport with. They do their best with Martin and Philomena, bbut Martin is so repressed and unrounded, that the character can never truly connect with Philomena, and even when he appears to, it seem forced and unnatural. Indeed, like another recent film Her, the best relationship on screen is between one of the actors and someone who never appears on screen with them. Philomena's relationship with her son feels real because of Dench's performance; her emotions are the only ones the audience has to play off of whereas an actual interaction between Dench and her onscreen son might have come across as forced and overplayed.

Overall, this is a lovely story, one that is certainly worthy of being told to a potential audience of millions, and Dame Judi Dench's performance is wonderful, but that's where the buck stops. Everything else seems flat and run of the mill, there's nothing spectacular about the way the story is told and the visual style, while good, is something we've seen before in films such as The King's Speech, a film which Philomena clearly aspires to be. Steve Coogan has made a charming little film, but it's so unspectacular that I hasten to say that this is probably the weakest of all Best Picture nominees this year. Two years ago, I had Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Last year, I had Beasts of the Southern Wild. This year, unfortunately, I have Philomena.

Rating: **1/2

Philomena was released on 1st November 2013 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.