The spirit of the great automaton makers of the 19th Century lives on in Wes Anderson, whose own contraptions offer up their clockwork innards for us to gape and marvel at. His films exist under a deep layer of brushed and polished artifice, with their doll house framing and mechanical precision. At their best they wrap their archly theatrical irony around a well of deep feeling and melancholy, while at their worst they hum and click away, never quite connecting. The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s most highly stylised film yet, with its rapid fire dialogue and Busby Berkeley-meets-Fritz Lang sets, but there is more here than what solely meets the eye. This is the most precise and tightly wound of all Anderson’s creations, but it’s also one of his funniest and warmest, and quite possibly his best.
Beginning in the present day, the film hurtles backwards through narrative frames and through the decades until it arrives at the recollections of Zero Moustafa, and his time as lobby boy at the titular hotel in inter-war Europe. The once great institution is ruled over with slick, imperious efficiency by concierge M Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) who holds the running of the establishment in the palm of one hand and beds elderly guests with the other. A murdered guest, a priceless painting and a slimy Adrien Brody, rising from his post-Oscar slump to look resplendently menacing in a hussar’s uniform, lead Gustave and Zero into a farcical crime caper that rockets along at a pace unusual for a Anderson film.
The actual mechanics of the plot are largely irrelevant, merely a useful frame to hang one bravura set-piece after another. Along the way there’s a parade of Anderson regulars and game newcomers, including memorable turns by a completely unrecognisable Tilda Swinton, a bald and inked Harvey Keitel, a befuddled Jeff Goldblum (is there any other kind?), and Willem Dafoe cast to sheer perfection as a lupine assassin. There are no false notes in the sprawling cast, but in the end this really is Fiennes’s show. It’s easy to forget that he has been very funny on screen before (In Bruges being his previous comedic showreel), but here he shows a dazzling flair for verbal and physical comedy to match all of the Marx brothers combined. Swivelling nimbly between florid poetics and sudden barked obscenities, Gustave is one of the truly great Anderson creations, up there with unscrupulous huckster Royal Tenenbaum and creepily precocious Max Fischer.
In fact the only person firing on as many cylinders as Fiennes is Anderson himself, who has never shown this level of sheer formal mastery before. Whether he’s turning his hand to visual screwball comedy, an ingenious prison break pastiche or a sinister film noir style pursuit through an art gallery, Anderson conducts the show with the same effortless swagger with which Gustave runs his hotel. In particular a new-found, grisly streak of macabre black humour fits him as well as Fiennes’s impeccable concierge’s uniform.
Yet all of this would be for nothing if it wasn’t for the genuinely moving veins of melancholy the film sneaks in under its smirking surface. The narrative framing, the mixture of the historical and the fairy-tale all serve to remind us that this is a world that was gone before we ever encountered it. In the end it is a film about the past, about our constant longing, and our inability to ever truly reconnect with it. “His world had vanished long before he entered it,” says the elderly Moustafa of his mentor Gustave. The same could be said of Anderson’s film, which contains within its grand, immaculately framed halls a deep longing for things irretrievably past.