With his eighth feature film The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson has again proven himself the master of quirk whilst demonstrating once more an impeccable understanding of what separates good movies from the rest. One of the most interesting contemporary directors, Anderson has again delivered a cinematic narrative that is hugely entertaining and utterly unique. The litany of familiar faces that pop up throughout The Grand Budapest Hotel is testament to the reputation that Anderson has cultivated in bringing highly original material to the screen at a time when so much of what we see is little more than a rehash of something that has gone before. Regardless of what you think of his films, Anderson can never be accused of simply following in the footsteps of others. However, individuality means little if you can’t deliver a high quality product and fortunately, with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson has delivered in spades.
The story begins in 1985 with an unnamed author (Tom Wilkinson) speaking directly to the audience, recounting a story that had been told to him almost 20 years earlier. From here, we backpedal to 1968 in flashback as the author (now played by Jude Law) visits the once opulent but now altogether drab Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional European republic of Zebrowka, where he meets the hotel owner Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner, Moustafa explains how he came to own the hotel, a tale that dates back to 1932 when he began working at the Grand Budapest as a lobby boy. In a terrific comic turn that belies his reputation as the most serious of leading men, Ralph Fiennes is M. Gustave, the legendary concierge at the hotel who takes the young Zero (played to perfection by teenager Tony Revolori in his feature film debut) under his wing and subsequently leads him into all manner of troubles. When Gustave is bequeathed the priceless painting Boy with Apple by 84-year-old dowager Madame D. (a transformed Tilda Swinton) with whom he has been sleeping – “I sleep with all my friends”, he tells her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) matter-of-factly – nobody is very happy and, as a suspect in Madame D’s death, Gustave becomes a target for Dmitri’s henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe).
A series of madcap adventures ensue as Gustave and Zero remove the painting from Madame D’s mansion and stash it at the hotel. Subsequently sent to prison, Gustave escapes soon enough to again team up with Zero and his fiancé Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) to retrieve the painting. Amid much chaos and old-school hijinks, Gustave is ultimately vindicated, confirmed as the rightful owner of Boy with Apple and returns to his position at the hotel. Anderson makes no attempt to embed his tale with realism, either visually or narratively and it is an utterly charming experience as a result. At no stage do the exteriors of the hotel or the surrounding landscape seem real and it is this fairy tale-style imagery that allows us to become so accepting of a story that makes little sense. This is pure escapism; a convoluted narrative delivered in a non-conventional style that could easily come across as pretentious if it wasn’t so well executed and so much fun.
Amongst the stellar cast of bit players are Anderson regulars such as Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson, along with Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Almaric, Bob Balaban and Fisher Stevens, many of whom are only on screen for the briefest of moments. Whilst The Grand Budapest Hotel is deliciously good fun, there are moments of pathos, black humour and violence, with several characters meeting their maker throughout the course of events. As is Anderson’s wont, each scene is meticulous in its symmetry, a beautifully ordered frame within which much merriment ensues. Interestingly, the aspect ratio of the frame changes in accordance with the time period in which a particular scene is set. After the critical success of the sublime Moonrise Kingdom – which also proved a hit with audiences – it was difficult to imagine Anderson surpassing that effort. However, The Grand Budapest Hotel is, at the very least, the equal of anything he has done before, which in itself is a remarkable achievement.