Film Review: The Best OfferItalian director Giuseppe Tornatore takes a welcome break from Sicilian themes in an astutely written return to English-language genre film, where his Baroque excesses get worked into the plot.
Putting aside the Sicilian thread that runs from Cinema Paradiso to Baaria, writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore gets his cultural baggage out of the attic for a classic Old World mystery set in Europe’s high-rolling art world. The Best Offer chisels a complicated intrigue out of an amorphous atmosphere of neurosis, wealth and sophistication. Its pained interrogation of art, beauty, December love, truth and falsity has a Death in Venice lugubriousness, and not for nothing is the main character called Oldman. Though it begs for a little lightening up, a moment of irony, a wink at the audience, this dead-serious fairy tale about a mysterious young woman (and a phantom automaton straight out of Hugo) is worth watching for Geoffrey Rush’s sensitive, never-pandering performance as an effete master auctioneer who gradually discovers he has a heart. Massive production values tend to overpower the story, but they could be an added attraction for cultivated audiences.
Shot all over northern Italy, Vienna and Prague, the film’s precise setting is deliberately left a blank. As in the director’s A Pure Formality and The Unknown Woman, the anonymous location “somewhere in Europe” makes it easier to accept an international cast speaking English. Lonely, crabby aesthete Virgil Oldman (Rush) has spent a lifetime learning his trade: He can spot a Louis XIV at 20 paces and sell Galileo’s personal telescope for millions in a few minutes on the auction floor. Claiming to “admire but fear women,” he has never had a relationship in his life. Until, that is, he meets Claire Ibbotson (Sylvia Hoeks), heiress to a sprawling villa full of paintings and antiques. She convinces him to evaluate her late parents’ property, which she toys with selling, but because of a mysterious illness withholds her presence from the elderly snob. Finally, he becomes obsessed with seeing her at all costs, by any means possible.
In the midst of his frustrated longings, he’s filching pieces of rusty mechanical gears from her basement on a hunch. His young friend and mechanical genius Robert (Jim Sturgess) puts them together in delight, watching a priceless 18th-century talking automaton emerge (though far too slowly in terms of screen time). This is not the first sign of Virgil’s dishonest nature. For years he has been downplaying paintings that interest him at auctions and letting his accomplice Billy Whistler (an artistically white-bearded Donald Sutherland) pick them up for a song. A breach of integrity on this scale would be enough to condemn any character, were not Rush a magician at portraying the cranky eccentric as a flawed human being and keeping the audience on his side.
The first half of the screenplay works like clockwork, despite some doldrums due to repeating information, but by the second half real slippage begins when Claire decides to reveal herself to Virgil. In the flesh she loses all mystery for the audience, if not for the enamored reformed misanthrope; in Rush’s masterful hands, his late-blooming feelings stir tenderness.
Both the good-humored Sutherland and young Sturgess pack a lot into their offbeat characters, giving Virgil somebody to talk to and fight with, while reflecting him in their own dark mirrors. Dutch shooting star Sylvia Hoeks (Tirza) is limber in her first English-language role.
Like a woman who puts on all her makeup at once, the combined weight of Italy’s top technicians makes itself felt in Fabio Zamarion’s smoky cinematography, Maurzio Sabatini’s lavishly refined sets, Maurizio Millenotti’s dapper costumes and Ennio Morricone’s heavily used strings. One magic moment which illustrates Tornatore’s visual imagination at its best is Virgil’s secret chamber, a marbled vault hung to the rafters with dozens, maybe hundreds of charming female portraits he has squirreled away, including famous faces by Raphael, Titian and Velasquez. There he spends his pre-Claire evenings, gazing at a female universe he dare not touch in the flesh. It offers a perfect parallel to the famous kissing sequence in Cinema Paradiso: the serial emotions of art as life perfected.