Indebted to the works of Austrian author Stefan Zweig, whose popular novellas throughout the twenties and thirties were largely reflecting his own life in post-war Vienna, Wes Anderson’s eighth feature film luxuriously envisions a bygone age; the fictional setting of Zubrowka itself an oddball amalgamation of fairy-tale romanticism and looming wartime sentiments.
The young Zero (Tony Revolori) quickly proves his worth to the dapper caretaker, soon learning of his dubious affairs with wealthy, elderly aristocrats, which leads to the mysterious passing of Gustave’s latest conquest, one Madame D (Tilda Swinton). Called to the reading of her will, Gustave leans that she had bequeathed him the thought-to-be-priceless painting ‘Boy with Apple’, much to the chagrin of her immediate family. When Madame D’s son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody) refuses to acknowledge Gustave as the rightful owner of the painting, Gustave takes matters into his own hands by stealing it and forming a pact with Zero to sell it on at a later time.
But things are about to get a whole lot worse when Gustave is arrested and sent to prison for Madame D’s murder. Now he must befriend his fellow inmates if he’s to ever clear his name in the search for the only known witness who can provide him with an alibi, but who’s also pursued by a ruthless assassin (Willem Defoe).
True to form, then, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a visually surreal splendour; the eponymous residence of the title looking like a giant, pink playhouse, situated within the veneer of a cardboard alpine, is every bit as inviting as you might expect for a feature that’s akin to flicking through a pop-up book (special props to Annie Atkins who deserves an award for the, err, props). With child-like enthusiasm Anderson gleefully goes through the stop-motions in creating this unusual little world, replete with trademark zooms that only the likes of he and Jared Hess can get away with these days; fluctuating aspect ratios; meticulously crafted compositions and pleasingly absurd set-pieces. The delights are truly in the details, with every frame oozing some kind of distraction - Harvey Keitel’s hilariously awful tattoos leave you curious for more - from an already twisting narrative that’s equal parts crime thriller and bumbling comedy.
A cornucopia of reliable faces litter the stage, some barely recognisable (Tilda Swinton as a cantankerous old maid), others underused (Bill Murray and Owen Wilson respectively), and some spectacularly over-the-top, with nods to Adrien Brody and Willem Defoe’s dastardly-looking villains. The real stars of the show, however, are F. Murray Abraham, Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, who are firmly rooted at the centre of the film’s emotional core. Fiennes - modelled on Zweig himself - is exceedingly entertaining as the debauched king of his domain and when paired with Revolori’s inquisitive lobby boy, a terrific double-act is formed, showcasing impeccable comic timing and a loveable chemistry throughout. You’ll be rooting for Gustave all the way, while Anderson throws in a delicately handled romantic subplot for Zero, which leads to a thoughtful denouement.
Stefan Zweig was never wholly satisfied with filmed adaptations of his work. As an ode to a once golden era, filled with nostalgic longing, The Grand Budapest Hotel might just prove to be the best kind of compliment he could have hoped for. There’s still time to catch it playing after recent box-office success, so better late than never.