The Grand Budapest Hotel feels in many ways the culmination of Wes Anderson’s sensibilities as much as it is his ensemble (though other films have had as many recurring cast members, with newcomers to his company including Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Tom Wilkinson etc., it is particularly starry). Setting the film in the fictional, but definitely European, Republic of Zubrowka on the eve of war in 1932 – somewhere between, but separate from, WWI and WWII – seems incredibly appropriate for Anderson, and while other works of his certainly have elements of created worlds, this feels the most clearly imagined, a confection of influences and ideas that make you nostalgic for a past that never existed in a place that never existed.
As you might expect, Anderson goes to town on the design, revelling in the artifice of the titular establishment and its environs, but not at the sacrifice of story and, for which he is often unfairly criticised, warmth and emotion. It looks exquisite, with the hotel itself a wonderful creation, and the lovely miniature work shows a continuation of the effect Fantastic Mr Fox appears to have had on his style. Though Anderson is often given kudos for witty dialogue and quirky characters, he is rarely praised for his comic timing and framing, something that he truly excels at here, able to extract humour from incidental details, finding potential in the simplest things, and filling the screen with great visual gags akin to Aardman animations or early silent comedy. This is Anderson at his most composed and constructed, but that just means every shot raises a smile.
Even Anderson’s films at their leanest can suffer longueurs, but pleasingly that’s not the case with The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film moves at a rollicking pace, constantly propulsive, with a screwball energy that keeps the ever snowballing troubles of our central mismatched duo engaging and exciting. And although newcomer Tony Revolori acquits himself well as the hotel’s new lobby boy, it’s Fiennes as Gustave who is the masterstroke of casting. Charming, professional, but peculiar and prone to profanity, master concierge Gustave is a character that could easily lapse into caricature or end up one-note, but there’s a depth to his performance that might otherwise have been missed. Delightfully and deftly played, it’s a reminder that Fiennes doesn’t need to take himself seriously to deliver a brilliant performance (see also: In Bruges).
If there is fault to be found, then The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film of frequent minor pleasures, a rapid stream of amuse bouches, or a bag of pick ‘n’ mix, than a fully fledged banquet or buffet. It is a consistent joy to watch, and there are so many magic moments that spring to mind, but while it flirts with some more substantial concepts, it never quite commits. That may be ultimately a good thing (The Darjeeling Limited for example is derailed by its loftier ambitions), it may mean others will find it somewhat lacking. But all that aside, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a genuine pleasure.