The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s rambunctious but elegant Mitteleuropa farce stars Ralph Fiennes on brilliant comic form

The Grand Budapest Hotel - trailer
The Grand Budapest Hotel
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Director: Wes Anderson
Cert: 15A
Genre: Comedy
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Jude Law, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton, F Murray Abraham
Running Time: 1 hr 39 mins

A few critics have, from time to time, accused Wes Anderson of “contrivance”. What now? All fictions are contrived. Unlike real life, stories tend to have middles that lead neatly from exploratory beginnings to neatly tidied-up endings.

If there has been a problem with Anderson’s recent live-action work, it has more to do with contrivance’s evil twin: disorder. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited felt like second-string Wes. The frustratingly uneven Moonlight Kingdom kept it together for a lovely opening act, then degenerated into running around and shouting.

All is forgiven. The Grand Budapest Hotel conveys the impression of disorder: midnight flights, wild ski rides, outbreaks of gunplay. But it is as tightly wound as the best farces of Feydeau or Molière. Add in the director’s gift for nesting stories, his taste for grotesques and his exquisite eye, and you have the best Wes Anderson film in a decade.

As Anderson is wont to do, The Grand Budapest Hotel trades on nostalgia for a largely imagined earlier era. This is the romantic, doomed Mitteleuropa that inspired Ruritanian adventure stories by Eric Ambler and Anthony Hope. Belgian cartoonist Hergé enjoyed that world as well, and the film employs the same elegant visual language – neat frames cluttered with lovely objets d’art – that made his Tintin comics so delicious.


We begin with narrative Russian dolls. A teenage girl reads a memoir penned by someone listed only as “the author”. The story relates a journey, made in the 1960s, to the Grand Budapest Hotel – located in the Republic of Zubrowka – which the author (Jude Law) finds to be living poorly on past glories. He meets the owner of the establishment (F Murray Abrahams) and settles down to hear how it came into his possession.

That tale packs every second of the picture’s busy 99 minutes with incident. Much of it finds Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s concierge, and Zero (Tony Revolori), a new lobby boy, hurriedly trying to extinguish one of a hundred metaphorical fires.

It transpires that the endlessly charming, superbly organised Gustave is an operator on a trans-European scale. He manages to juggle professional duties with the seduction of older, richer female guests. But the wheels do occasionally shudder on their axes.

Chaos looms when one of those conquests, the ancient Madame D (a heavily made-up Tilda Swinton), dies in "mysterious circumstances". At the funeral, Gustave learns that Madame D has left him a hugely valuable painting called Boy with an Apple. The family murmurs and, shortly thereafter, Gustave finds himself framed for the old lady's murder.

As you may have gathered, the film swells with Hitchcockian MacGuffins. But Anderson keeps the pace so furious and works so hard at tying up loose ends that little scratching of heads is ever necessary.

He is greatly assisted by an extraordinarily amusing performance from Fiennes. That actor has proved himself in many fields over the years, but, to this point, his talents as a farceur have been kept well under wraps. If we must reach for a comparison, then Cary Grant will do well enough: cracking double-takes; grace under fire. Fiennes's hints of inner fragility add, however, a poignancy you rarely got from Grant. Maybe Robert Donat in The 39 Steps is a better comparison.

Anderson’s most bewildering achievement is to pack so much into such a compact space. The film abounds with celebrity cameos, almost all of them worthwhile. It gets across omens about this antique territory’s looming annihilation during the second World War. And it features some of the loveliest, most elegantly composed production design you could ever dream of enjoying.

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Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist