At the turn of the century, in the tumultuous Republic of Zubrowka, young war refugee Zero Mustafa (Tony Revolori) goes to work as a lobby boy at the prestigious Grand Budapest Hotel. He soon becomes the trusted friend and confidante of its legendary concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) who runs the hotel with consummate efficiency, caring for his exclusive clientele's every need which includes romancing elderly aristocratic ladies. One of Monsieur Gustave's ageing paramours, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, in scarily effective old-age makeup) dies in suspicious circumstances, bequeathing him the rare and hugely valuable Renaissance painting Boy with Apple by Johannes van Hoytle the Younger. This does not sit well with the dead woman's sinister son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody) who ensures Monsieur Gustave is wrongfully imprisoned for murder. As a result Monsieur Gustave along with Zero and the latter's girlfriend, plucky pastry chef Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) are catapulted into a breakneck adventure involving nosey rival manager Serge (Mathieu Amalric), ill-fated lawyer-cum-hotelier Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), malevolent henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe), doggedly decent policeman Henckels (Edward Norton) and a jail break headed by bald prison veteran Ludwig (Harvey Keitel). Throughout the mystery remains who has Boy with Apple and what secret does it hold?
Following cult success with early films Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998), writer-director Wes Anderson found himself awkwardly pigeonholed as the hipster indie auteur hipster cinephiles love to hate. Much of his subsequent work has proven hugely divisive although personally one would argue the case for both hilarious stop-motion animated Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and especially delightful coming-of-age romance Moonrise Kingdom (2012). However, with The Grand Budapest Hotel Anderson found a much more receptive audience for his playful whimsicality and obsessive love of candy-coloured artifice. Part of the good will stemmed from the lovability of its magnificently contradictory central protagonist, Monsieur Gustave, played to ripe comic perfection by Ralph Fiennes in a performance not simply Oscar worthy but comparible with the late, great Peter Sellers. Now that's high praise!
Yet as great as Fiennes is, as awe-inspiring as the handcrafted, pastel-shaded hotel sets and painted backdrops remain, the real key to the film's success lies with Anderson's intricate, ambitious script. Written in collaboration with Hugo Guinness, the British artist, illustrator and writer whose artwork appeared in Anderson's previous films The Royal Tannenbaums (2001) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), the story adopts a deliberately convoluted chronology continually contrasting past and present, age with youth, fact with fiction, the opulence of the titular hotel in its early turn-of-the-century splendour with the pale shadow that exists in the Cold War era of the 1960s. This is where we first meet the aged Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who enraptures a young novelist (Jude Law) with his tall tale. Yet Anderson indulges (perhaps over-indulges) in a triple-layered framing device, setting the scene as a young girl sits reading in front of a statue of the presumably deceased author whose grumpy older incarnation (Tom Wilkinson) then proceeds to narrate directly to camera.
Though some questioned the necessity of Anderson indulging in such elaborate story mechanics and whether there was any underlining point to his slightly self-satisfied literary and cinematic gamesmanship, it is worth noting the undercurrent of wistful melancholy that runs throughout. The sprawling narrative contrasts the sad, resigned future incarnations of the characters with their more exuberant and idealistic younger selves. It is the latter that seem more alive and vivid to the viewer and the film suggests that their dreams live on in the collective memories wrought by the writer's fiction. In that sense one would suggest that the underlining point of The Grand Budapest Hotel is to celebrate the power of a rattling good yarn and its ability to conjure back to life a vanished place, time and people so that they seem vibrant and new. It is the power of both memory and of cinema. To that end Anderson takes his love of artifice to new heights of ingenuity albeit firmly in the service of the labyrinthine story: the giant toy-box like sets and near-Méliès handcrafted exteriors, shifting aspect ratios, precision-choreographed slapstick and whimsical wordplay. Like a lot of Wes Anderson movies, Grand Budapest Hotel is also very literary with chapter headings, allusions and parodies to great literary works and an evasive story structure that mimics the slippery style of much post-modernist fiction in a manner that may beguile or grate depending on how sympathetic one is to his aims.
Alexander Desplat's amazing, multifaceted score is another key component in the movie's success. Desplat deftly underscores the subtle shifts in mood, in particular the Hitchcockian suspense whenever Willem Dafoe's monstrous hit-man stalks some hapless unfortunate. These scenes are something new and welcome in Anderson's repertoire. As is the exciting ski chase, one of several elaborate set-pieces that resemble those from his divisive animated family film Fantastic Mr. Fox which more and more has begun to look like a key turning point in his evolution as a filmmaker. There are numerous memorable characters, impeccably played by the exciting all-star ensemble but it is Fiennes' Monsieur Gustave who encapsulates the humanity inherent in the script. An opportunist, prissy perfectionist and romancer of the elderly he might be but Monsieur Gustave is also entirely without prejudice, generous in spirit and just a fundamentally decent fellow. Perhaps the grandest achievement of this grandiloquent epic is that it brings such a nuanced and engaging comic character to the screen.