One of the many surprises in Wes Anderson's rich, layered and quirkily entertaining new film, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," is the emergence of a new comic actor, one with impeccable timing and just the right mix of gravitas and utter zaniness.
Ladies and gents, meet Ralph Fiennes.
You might not immediately think the man who played the tragic count in "The English Patient," an evil war criminal in "Schindler's List," a violent Coriolanus, and oh yes, Voldemort, would be a natural in comedy. But he proves a deft, daft partner to Anderson in this, their first collaboration.
The film itself is a madcap caper on one level. On another, it's a look at a dying world, and way of life, in the period between the two world wars, with the specter of totalitarianism looming. Just like the fictional hotel in the title, the movie is a meticulously constructed confection, featuring the extreme attention to detail that Anderson is famous for.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in a spa town in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, somewhere in eastern Europe. It's a place where wealthy older women come to be pampered.
That's where Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes) comes in. An old-school concierge, Gustave lives to please his customers. And so the services he provides (wink wink) go beyond simply making sure the flowers are fresh and the wine chilled.
Gustave is persnickety, pompous and vain. But he's committed to doing his job as well as it can be done. He's indeed a creature of a fast-disappearing Old World.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Or rather, behind ourselves, because the film hopscotches between three time periods.
We begin in 1985. A middle-aged writer (Tom Wilkinson) is recalling his stay at the Grand Budapest some 20 years earlier. Suddenly we're back in 1968, in the hotel, which is a shell of its former glory - it's an ugly, post-Communist relic, with really bad furniture. That same writer (now played by Jude Law) encounters the hotel's mysterious owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who offers to tell him his story.
Which brings us back in time again, to the years between the wars, when the hotel looked like a strawberry-frosted wedding cake. Mr. Moustafa is now a young lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori) an ambitious lad whom Gustave takes under his wing.
The plot gets going with the death of Madame D - an 84-year-old, extremely rich dowager countess (Tilda Swinton, barely recognizable in amazing makeup) and former lover of Gustave. Turns out she's left him a priceless painting. But her imperious son Dmitri (Adrien Brody, having fun here) won't have this smarmy concierge get a piece of the family fortune. Gustave swipes it anyway.
Gustave is eventually caught and sent to prison camp, where, with a fellow inmate (Harvey Keitel, no less), he plots escape. They make it out, leading to more amazing chases, involving motorcycles, a mountain cable car, a ski jump, a bobsled run, and a confession booth in a monastery. There's a wild shootout across hotel balconies. And there's the funniest scene in the film, a montage of old-world concierges across Europe, banding together to try to help Gustave.
You'll spot Anderson regular Bill Murray here, as well as Jason Schwartzman and, in a quick moment, Owen Wilson. Edward Norton is funny as a determined military police chief. Willem Dafoe is Dmitri's ultra-violent henchman, and Jeff Goldblum the unfortunate lawyer who runs afoul of him. Saoirse Ronan is young Zero's girlfriend.
But in the end it's Fiennes who makes the biggest impression. His stylized, rapid-fire delivery, dry wit and cheerful profanity keep the movie bubbling along. Here's to further Fiennes-Anderson collaborations.