Ah cinematography.. It's difficult to call it a lost art, because with the introduction of 3D filming techniques and Ultra High Definition resolutions, movie makers must be more conscious than ever of exactly how their movie looks when it is projected on to the big screen. Let's just say the art has evolved to such a stage that when the old classics are utilised they stick out like a fingernail in the pumpkin soup. Movies like Her, Black Swan, Drive and Gravity have ensured that when done correctly, cinematography can propel a movie to heights that it's script and actors are unable to permeate. Just look at Hugo, one of the sinfully worst movies to make it big, yet with such a breath taking utilisation of 3D technology you'd swear on your mothers grave it was one of the greatest scripted pieces ever produced.
When I saw the previews for The Grand Budapest Hotel, I was instantly drawn in. I assumed, wrongly, that it was destined for the boutique theatres, and that even an all star cast (most of whom are sidelined by minor roles) wouldn't save it from itself. It looked like a piece of obscurity, a quaint indulgence that traded on whimsy rather than solidity of concept, acting and script. The very first problem is the fact that Eastern Europe is a prominent feature. This part of the world seems to polarise opinion, whether as a by-product of the Cold War or just a a general opinion on its apparent impassiveness. Sure, it doesn't hold the beauty and history of a place like London, Paris, Beijing, or Rome. Yet to me it has always been utterly stunning; a vast, desolate slab of earth interspersed with concrete jungles built to a precise function and without love or even pride of craft.
Ok bloody hell, don't let's get too bogged down in that yet. The movie is written and directed by the delightful Wes Anderson, who also weaved magic on The Darjeeling Limited, a similarly toned movie that found Owen Wilson gnashing his acting teeth in a pleasurable way (if that is possible). It is inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, and it is here that the old chestnut rears its head. The movie is a story within a story, allowing it the indulgence of two narrators. F. Murray Abraham, who looks absolutely nothing like his supposed younger self, provides us with a historical recount of his time at the Grand Budapest Hotel, as told to both Jude Law as The Author (a role loosely based on Stefan Zweig, the inspiration), and his older, yet still deceased, presentation, Tom Wilkinson. Confused?
It's an odd way to start the movie. We are taken to a decidedly Soviet looking town square, where a young unidentified girl places a key chain on the bust of The Author and sits down to read his story. Then we are catapulted to Wilkinson, as the older version, speaking to camera with a child shooting him with a toy gun. With no characterisation or plot development, we are immediately thrown to Jude Law, as the Young Author, where he encounters F. Murray Abraham, who owns the Grand Budapest Hotel. Bloody hell. It's infinitely more understandable on screen. Both Abraham and Law offer brief insights in to their current status, which is odd, as neither character is truly explored, especially The Author. His piece to camera at the beginning as Wilkinson is more instructive in retrospect. He claims to be merely a vessel through which the story flows, and the true beauty lies within the actions, feelings and thoughts of the major players, not in the words he uses to describe them. It's a nice little work around so you aren't mired in some exorbitant plot piece that allows the writer to somehow shoe horn a second narrator in.
From here, once Abraham (who is brilliant by the way) and Law strike up an almost immediate friendship, the true story can begin. Set in the early 1930s, we follow the events that gravitate around Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori, who is meant to resemble a young Abraham but unless he had extensive surgery in his middle age this is not possible). The true light is Gustave, who prances around the screen with the contradictory habits one would usually encounter when you meet your bank manager at a pub on a friday night. He is at first presented as a sturdy character, a disciplinarian who instills confidence in his staff through an unflappable calmness and the ability to organise even the most outrageous requests of his guests. Yet it becomes clear that his success is based mostly around his ability in the bedroom. Despite being an excellent concierge, he is at times clumsy, and can lose focus quickly. When he and Zero are shaken on the train by some form of Nazi stand-over group, he attempts initially to maintain composure and quote some insightful piece of wisdom he'd plucked out of thin air. Halfway through he says 'Fuck it' and takes a swig of his drink, breaking the facade.He could immediately be tarred as pompous yet his demeanour is so disarming and 'every-man' that you relate to him without even realising it. He isn't a boss, he is a friend and confidante. A fascinating character.
Zero (the younger version) is much more straight laced. A lobby boy, he is taken under Gustave's wing to be taught the ways of the world and the hotel if there is time. He displays little youthful exuberance, and we learn later that his past is dark and filled with terrible events. He is much more reserved than Gustave, yet this plays perfectly up against his more potent co-star, providing the dry, or the earth, a grounding in reality when the movie can so quickly descend in to unbelievable realms.
Essentially, one of Gustave's lovers, Madame D, dies under suspicious circumstances, and leaves him an incredibly valuable painting and, it turns out, her entire estate (although this isn't discovered until later). Naturally, her family are incensed, and this triggers a most obscene chain of events that range from the purely hilarious to the downright rude and horrific. I liken it at times to Hot Fuzz, with Simon Pegg. Just when you think you're watching a lovely little comedy on a Sunday afternoon someone's head gets splattered. Standover man Willem Dafoe provides the gruesome, by chopping off Jeff Goldblum's fingers in a door and consigning a cat to a bloody and quite visual death when he throws it out the window. He also contributes to a severed head turning up in a laundry basket. Wes Anderson wants to ensure we recognise what happened by presenting us with the actual head, open mouth and terrified eyes. Lovely.
Through many capers, Gustave triumphs in the end and becomes exceedingly wealthy. Zero recounts how when Gustave passed, he inherited all of his estate, which included the hotel. A nice little package is wrapped up, and the explanation of why Zero retains the hotel despite it's financial failings is explained, somewhat shakily, by his devotion to his one true love, Agatha, who passed very young.
Ok so that's the plot out of the way. If you read the review looking for a plot then just wikipedia it. Or go to the actual movie. Support our multi-millionaire movie makers. The movie is actually a total triumph. As all triumphs, though, it is hard fought and requires constant vigilance. There is no one single stand out. Firstly, the cinematography. Anderson utilises a number of techniques that, whilst basic in nature, pack a visual punch. His pastel isn't particularly diverse, but when he does use colour it is starkly apparent due to the barren nature of his backdrop. The actual hotel looks like an oasis in the middle of an ice field, it's dull reds and passive yellows never clash with their surroundings yet remain striking. He uses wide shots to enhance the enormity of situations, such as when Gustave and Zero are attempting to locate Serge and are awaiting a cable car in some desolate piece of back country. They are outlined against a white sky and a white backdrop, the difficulty of their task enhanced and yet their dialogue is such that you almost feel you could be up there with them, enjoying a laugh. I adore the way he uses still camera's, allowing everything to pivot around the lens rather than attempting 'action shots' so to speak. The chase on ski's is hilarious, because it is clearly a mimmick of the early 30s movies and the way they depicted movement and drama through the use of models and smaller scale examples of larger happenings. There is just enough pan to show that what we are watching isn't real, but not so much that it looks farcical. And then there are the close ups of Zero and Gustave in pursuit, with a green screen behind them. It's wonderfully dated in a world of CGI mayhem. He also allows characters to be the focal point, and resists the urge to constantly change their surroundings or to move with them. A scene where Zero approached the prison in which Gustave is held, we see a wide shot of him knocking on a comically huge door, waiting it for open, only to have a regular entrance you don't even notice open next to it. Rather than immediately zoom in on his reaction or the reaction of the porter, the camera stays doggedly still as Zero moves. It's the little things, but by carrying it throughout the whole movie it creates a wonderful atmosphere of space and light.
Anderson called in some close mates on this one. Fiennes, Adrien Brody, who is one of the most stunning men in the entire world even with horrible facial hair, Willem Dafoe, who is scarier than a personal call from your doctor, Jeff Goldblum, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. It's just another technique, we get that. The trailer goes for ten minutes because they need shots of every superstar in it, even if their parts are miniscule. It may be a tad cynical yet an unintended consequence is that it causes the movie to absolutely ooze with skill and quality. Bill Murray and Owen Wilson are little more than extra's, yet their presence is luminous, and they are instantly watchable. Jeff Goldblum tones himself down just enough to be believable, and Adrien Brody is menacing. Willem Dafoe looks like he just walked out of Lock Stock, or Football Factory, and his work as standover man brings a jolting presence to the film. On the one hand we are presented with Gustave, a very likeable, whimsical, gay character who draws light from those around him and is instantly relatable. Then we have Zero, who's naiivety is endearing and his willingness and underacting (yeah I said it) only serve to focus harsher on the talented Fiennes. On the other hand is Dafoe, killing people and reminding us all that we are in 1930s Hungary and a war is about to begin. Brilliantly done.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a story, as well, and a damned good one. It's impossible to tell where the next plot jump will lead. Gustave is incarcerated, and you believe he will be turned to dust inside. Yet he wins the respect and trust of his fellow inmates and manages to escape with them. Then he finds Serge and you assume everything will be explained, but then Serge dies at the hands of Jopling, and a hilarious chase ensues. Eventually, something I certainly didn't see coming, Gustave inherits Madame D's entire estate and becomes filthy rich! But rather than become something he isn't, he retains his same character, and it turns out he was never playing a part at all, he was always true to himself, which is a message that isn't fully rammed home but is quite clear.
This is a brilliant movie. It has everything, and when I went in and sat down, if you'd looked at me sideways I would've ripped your nose straight from your face and choked you with it. Because I was in a bad, bad mood. Yet I was thoroughly entertained, and even managed to speak to a few strangers when we left and thank my mum for the stupidly expensive Gold Class seats. Here's a tip, don't go to the Gold Class in George Street. The seats are shithouse and uncomfortable, and the man kept trying to bring me wine that I didn't order. Actually, maybe it isn't that bad then.