The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place in a small country in Eastern Europe, but it's no place you've heard of. The land of Zubrowka is the creation of Wes Anderson, a filmmaker who has always paid as much fastidious attention to the world his films take place in as he has to story and character, and here he has concocted a deliberately artificial and anachronistic alternate vision of 20th century history. He opens the film in 1985, where a teenager in a grey communist society takes refuge in a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel, and then he takes us back through 1968 to 1932, when the events depicted in the book took place. As Anderson moves through the decades, he delineates the different periods by shifting from a widescreen frame to an unfamiliar academy ratio, but as his image contracts his imagination expands.
Working with the artist Hugo Guinness, Anderson unveils his narrative through multiple storytellers. The ageing author of The Grand Budapest Hotel (initially played by Tom Wilkinson) recounts his late ‘60s visit to the fading establishment (when he is played by Jude Law), where he happened to meet a mysterious fellow guest named Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner, Mr. Moustafa tells the writer how he first came to visit the hotel when it was in its prime, an enthusiastic young lobby boy (Tony Revolori) who became the protégé of the resident concierge Gustave H, a man who dedicated himself to ensuring that ensuring that every guest's need was catered to before they even have to ask. Gustave is one of Anderson’s greatest creations; a ripe blend of old-world charm and slightly camp elegance, who has a penchant for spouting poetry and seducing rich old women. He is played by Ralph Fiennes, giving the actor an opportunity to display a wonderful lightness of comic touch that is unprecedented in his work, but Fiennes also bring a gravity and sincerity to the character, making him a much richer figure than the pompous cad he appears to be.
Even in this period setting, Gustave is a man out of time. We are told that “His world had vanished long before he entered it, but he sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace," and this makes him the perfect protagonist for Anderson, a filmmaker markedly out of step with contemporary cinema. Here he is reaching back to filmmakers of a bygone age for inspiration, with The Grand Budapest Hotel displaying more than a hint of the Lubitsch touch, and traces of Ophüls, Powell & Pressburger and Rouben Mamoulian are evident in its construction too. The Grand Budapest Hotel is as finely assembled as you would expect, with the more compact frame being no less packed with detail, and with every composition and right-angle camera movement being meticulously controlled. Of course, by this stage in his career you'll probably know if his style works for you or not. In the past, I've found the fussiness of Anderson's filmmaking a barrier to enjoying them on more than a surface level, but The Grand Budapest Hotel has a sneaky emotional sting.
This feels simultaneously like Anderson's lightest and darkest work. The plot is a gleefully silly trifle surrounding the theft of an invaluable painting and a missing will, but the knockabout comedy is frequently – sometimes jarringly – interrupted by violent acts, most often perpetrated by a Willem Dafoe, in the guise of a brass-knuckle clad henchman. There's also a genuine sense of threat in the imminent arrival of a fascist regime, complete with Swastika-like insignias, and a lament for an age of innocence and civility that is about to be washed away. For all of the sparkling comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel contains, it may actually be Anderson's saddest and most subtly humane work.
This is Wes Anderson's eighth feature as a director, and many respects it feels like his most ambitious effort to date. A glance at the film's poster, which displays 16 very recognisable faces and one newcomer, suggests that this will be a very busy film, and so it proves to be. The film's farcical narrative finds room for shootouts and chase scenes (featuring some beautifully handcrafted effects), and many of Anderson's favourite actors pop up for little more than a single line. The Grand Budapest Hotel might be the most Wes Anderson-ish film that Anderson has made yet, but his refinement of his idiosyncratic style has also revealed unexpected depths, making this a film that might satisfy both Anderson devotees and sceptics alike.