The Grand Budapest Hotel ★★★★½

This is possibly the most mature of Wes Anderson's creations, composed of all of his signature flourishes and stylistic charms, but without the syrupy, delicately cute sentimentality that is often a mainstay of his narratives. Getting much of that out of his system in Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson now turns his focus to creating a sprawling masterpiece pivoting about one Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes) and his young protégé, building an ensemble of exceptional characters and a rich tapestry of competing intentions in the process.

Like all of his work, it's clear that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a product of a unique and singular vision, one that is uncompromising in its control and brave in its technique. From signature pans, tracks, and zooms, to insert shots and even stop motion elements, Anderson again demonstrates his mastery of composition and craftsmanship. It’s impossible to ingest all of the minute details he infuses, but I find it impossible not to delight in the diligence he takes to elevate each frame on screen by caring about every inch of what’s on it. We notice that the fine print on an insert shot has had significant thought put behind it, even if we aren’t afforded time enough to read it. We notice when cable cars abruptly stop, squeaking audibly to rest in perfect synchronicity with the underlying score.

And the deliberate adjustments of framing used to separate time periods, along with the unique visual qualities with which Anderson imbues each of them, never feel like 'looks'. They feel like context - a syntax that provides a change in structure and tone as much as it does a temporal shift. Colour palettes, tonal ranges, symmetry, and all of the visual qualities that create artful compositions that are distinctly Andersonian are present.

I could dwell in the visual complexity and meticulous beauty of his films forever, but what I feel are the strongest properties of this particular film actually lie in story and character. For one, it’s an incredibly dark film, but this notion isn't foreign to Anderson’s work. He’s covered the looming spectre of death (The Darjeeling Limited), the memory of past love of his characters (Rushmore), the depths of depression and remorse (The Royal Tenenbaums) and even abrupt - albeit quirky - deaths (The Life Aquatic, Moonrise Kingdom). The Grand Budapest Hotel is a different animal, weaving its story with murder and ill-intent, and dabbling in the macabre. And yet, it’s never not playful. This juxtaposition of the witty and the morbid surpasses even Tim Burton at his best, and is a decidedly new approach for an Anderson story. And it completely works.

Meanwhile, the heart of this film is its characters, a deep catalogue of wonderfully realized personas, even the most fleeting of which never feel like sketches. That’s probably due to Anderson’s mastery of the details: the way the hair of M. Jean (Schwartzman) mimics the way Zero’s behaves while wearing his lobby-boy hat (even though he himself never dons one), or the manner in which our narrator, “The Author” (Tom Wilkinson) reacts to his son’s mischief. It’s even in the smallest moments that we see a richer past to these characters, roots which reach far deeper beyond the edge of the frame.

The staggering ensemble cast would simply take too much time to go into, but favourites include Willem Dafoe’s Jopling and Jeff Goldblum’s Kovacs. And the star, Ralph Fiennes, is nothing less than incredible. Equal parts dry, charming, effusive and strong-willed, his M. Gustave is a brilliant performance, and a welcome direction for Fiennes - I can’t remember him ever doing something even remotely this funny, and I hope he does a whole lot more. The only odd man out is newcomer Tony Revolori, playing the role of Zero, M. Gustave’s protégé Lobby Boy, who seems to follow in the footsteps of Kumar Pallana (Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums). Like Pallana, Anderson has embraced him as a straight - and often bumbling - character, portrayed by someone notably lacking in acting chops, but prone to moments of exceptional energy and strong will. Here, like Pallana's before him, the character absolutely works, but it will always strike me as odd when Anderson makes a choice like this, since we can only assume it’s as decisive a choice as the rest of those he makes. Perhaps there’s something akin to paying back the world of cinema that embraced himself as a fledgling filmmaker and so too his friends (the Wilsons) as unknown actors – a way of elevating untapped talent. Fortunately, it’s not an obstacle for either Anderson our our viewing experience.

It should be pretty clear that I was completely immersed in the world and history of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a quirky parallel universe where boutique hotels are institutions and war is, at best, a C plot.

I always find it impossible not to smile while watching a Wes Anderson film, catching myself grinning in idiotic delight even in moments devoid of comedy. This one hurt the muscles of my mouth.