Film Noir meets eccentric costume drama

Moments of genius in a frenzied tale

The Grand Budapest Hotel (15A)

Those of you who find Wes Anderson to be one of the most quirkily affectionate directors around will be gratified to see him in peak form in this picaresque chronicle of a hotel in the Swiss Alps between the wars.

It’s presided over by the flamboyant concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), a man who seems to speak in italics but who delights in undercutting his own archness a la Oscar Wilde. The film documents his friendship with the lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) before and after the murder of elderly benefactor Madame D, played by an almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton.

Who did it? That’s not really as important as the fun we have watching Gustave getting sentenced to prison for it and then organising an elaborate escape, the most amusing part of which has himself and his fellow inmates jumping across the beds of the (sleeping!) jailers as they make their break for freedom.

This is just one ridiculous scene in a delightfully ridiculous movie. Anderson has crafted it as a tale-within-a-tale, the narrative voiceover distancing us as much from the action as Anderson’s own painterly directorial technique.

Most of the time we feel we’re watching a book come to life. The literary overtones are amplified by Fiennes’ hyperbole, which rides shotgun for an equally lavish visual treat.

Everything seems only half-real. Even the violence, which is sometimes graphic, has a cartoonish look about it. The actors behave like well-trained marionettes, buffoonish and wilfully contrived – to the manner born.  

Stylised tricks

It’s not realism and it’s not fantasy. Some of you may view it simply as a vulgar fairy tale. Anderson’s grab-bag of stylised tricks escapes categorisation, though the film has echoes of many of his earlier ones.  It also has many of the stars of his previous work in small parts: Swinton, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray.

It’s really Fiennes’ film but Anderson’s repertory company cast aid and abet him. To this there are some surprising additions: Harvey Keitel, Ed Norton, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, Jeff Goldblum and F. Murray Abraham, the latter playing Zero as an old man. Saoirse Ronan (pictured) also does a nice turn as a baker (and pointedly keeps her lovely Irish accent).

The secret with a film like this is to play it with deadly seriousness even – or especially – when it goes off the deep end, which happens all too frequently, as when Fiennes helps himself to a famous Renaissance painting. At times it’s like a valentine to the old movies. At other times it’s an absurdist, blackly-comic romp.

It probably won’t do much business at the box office because Anderson is primarily an art house director. It’s a pity he has such a reputation because his main talent is for being funny, a characteristic buffeted by the excellent comic timing of his cast here.

If such a cast didn’t eat up the film’s budget the elaborate sets probably did. I hope it makes its money back because it has many moments of genius in its episodic frenzy.

It may not be on a par with The Royal Tenenbaums, his masterpiece in my view, but it’s a high-grade side order to that salad nicoise. Stay with it and you’ll be rewarded.

Good ***