Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Delightful, inventive tall tale from quirk-master Wes Anderson, featuring a witty Ralph Fiennes as a recklessly overconfident roué.

Whatever your opinion of them, Wes Anderson’s films have a singular style that’s instantly recognizable from the very first frame. In movies ranging from Rushmore to The Royal Tenenbaums, from his stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox to his 2012 hit Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s visual sensibility embraces copiously detailed, diorama-like master shots, bold and colorful costuming and production design, ornate chapter title cards, precisely timed camera pans, and abundant whimsy. Some feel his style is too self-conscious and twee; I find it generally delightful. And his new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, ranks among his best, an ambitious and highly original concoction featuring an irresistible lead performance by Ralph Fiennes.

Inspired by the writings of early 20th-century Austrian novelist and playwright Stefan Zwieg, Anderson’s screenplay charts the adventures of the titular hotel’s hilariously vain concierge Gustave H. (Fiennes), who unashamedly courts the decrepit dowagers who stay at the Grand Budapest. Gustave’s life changes dramatically when his lover Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, embalmed in old-age makeup) kicks the bucket and bequeaths him a priceless painting. That doesn’t sit well at all with Madame D.’s hot-tempered son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), a sinister type with a brutal henchman, Jopling (Willem Dafoe), to do his dirty work. Gustave, accompanied by his loyal lobby boy and protégé Zero (Tony Revolori), flees Madame D.’s mansion with the painting in tow, setting in motion a series of intrigues that encompass murder, an arrest and prison sentence, an escape from said prison, and a wild ski chase. A key figure is Zero’s fiancée Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a young apprentice baker whose talents in the kitchen prove invaluable.

The main action takes place in the 1930s in a fictitious Eastern European country (with all those scenes shot in the era’s nearly square 1.33 to 1 ratio), where the thuggish behavior of Dmitri and Jopling and Gustave’s pursuit by a tenacious military officer (Edward Norton) clearly represent the rise of fascism, contrasted with the Old World nostalgia embraced by the elegant but often outrageous Gustave. Anderson folds this story within two other stories: The film opens in 1985 with a celebrated writer (Tom Wilkinson) recalling his 1968 stay at the Grand Budapest; now played by Jude Law, the author hears the story of Gustave from the elderly Zero (F. Murray Abraham), who now owns the fading establishment. With a narrative meticulousness to match the dazzling production design, this convoluted structure is never confusing; the same applies to all those madcap ’30s twists and reversals.

Keeping the film on a constant helium high is the very fine Fiennes, a newcomer to the Anderson stock company. His Gustave is a droll combination of haughty self-confidence and foolishness, courtliness and profanity, stiff formality and fast-and-loose morality, all bolstered by Fiennes’ proven skills as a stage and screen veteran. Newcomer Revolori, as his devoted attendant, has an endearing puppy-like quality, and the entire supporting cast supplies plenty of lively color. Longtime Anderson cohorts Bill Murray and Owen Wilson make brief appearances as members of an exclusive club of continental concierges.

Adding to the charm of this antic fable is Anderson’s undisguised use of miniatures to depict the fanciful exterior of the hotel and the breathless winter chase scenes. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a true original from a resourceful, inventive filmmaker who continues to surprise.