This latest English-language effort for Italian director Paolo Sorrentino is a philosophical, funny and ultimately moving film that muses on all manner of things; aging, loneliness, family, friendship, life and death. Featuring fabulous performances from Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and an array of supporting players that include Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and Jane Fonda, Youth is an altogether sumptuous experience that will resonate long after the closing credits. After the turgid tripe that is The Last Witchhunter, it is great to see Caine in something much more substantial and he is terrific as revered composer and conductor Fred Ballinger, who is on holiday in a Swiss health retreat when he is invited by the Queen to present one of his masterpieces at a Royal Command Performance. Joining Fred on his holiday are his daughter Lena (Weisz) and lifelong best friend Mick Boyle (Keitel), an acclaimed film director who, with a writing team in tow, is scripting a new film as a starring vehicle for his old friend Brenda Morel (Fonda). There are a vast array of eclectic characters staying at the retreat, including a Hollywood actor (Dano), Miss Universe, a once great footballer now excessively overweight and beset by health problems (Diego Maradona anybody?), a levitating monk and a wealthy couple who never speak a word to each other but then sneak off to have sex in the forest.
The relationship between Fred and Mick is one that has flourished over more than 60 years and their lives are so entwined that Lena is married to Mick’s son. Much of the film is spent following the two old men as they stroll the grounds and surrounding countryside (which is beautiful), doing as best they can to cling to memories of their shared past. Whilst Fred has happily said goodbye to his music career, Mick can’t come to terms with the prospect that his career may also be over and is desperately trying to repair his reputation after a series of poorly received films. This is a rendering of male friendship with an insight and emotion rarely seen on the big screen and both actors bring vulnerability and wit to their characters. The relationship between Fred and Lena seems great on the surface – she works as his assistant and shares a hotel room with him – but when Lena launches into a tirade about the way in which Fred treated her and her mother, citing extra-marital affairs and an all-consuming devotion to his art, it is a powerful moment that provides considerable insight into the type of person that Fred once was. However, when Fred’s reasons for declining the Queen’s invitation are revealed, it suggests a sense of regret for his failings as a husband and a love for his wife that he had perhaps failed to articulate previously.
Dano imbues his character with a cockiness and cynicism that makes it all the more delicious when he gets him comeuppance at the hand of a precocious young girl (Emilia Jones), one of many great peripheral characters who inhabit the narrative. Fonda is absolutely fabulous in a brief but indelible turn as a bitchy Hollywood diva who issues Mick with a scathing critique of his arty pretensions, while one of the least successful elements of the film is pop star Paloma Faith playing herself as the mistress of Lena’s husband. Whilst her utterances are kept to a minimum, Croation actress Luna Mijovic is mesmerising as a lonely masseuse who spends her nights dancing to her Wii.
There is so much to like about Youth. The banter between the two old men always seems insignificant at first but always morphs into much broader discussions about lost opportunities, yearning, memory and regret. Caine and Keitel are a joy to watch as they grapple with their conflicting attitudes towards aging. The cinematography from Luca Bigazzi is gorgeous and the use of music throughout – from a cover of Florence and the Machine’s You’ve Got the Love to Fred conducting a symphony from the sounds of nature – is both overt and affective. With Youth, Sorrentino has struck the right balance between mirth and melancholy to deliver a film that ultimately suggests that the emotional trumps the intellectual in the pursuit of a meaningful existence.