Between his star debut as Amon Goeth in Schindler's List and his role as Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies, Ralph Fiennes has become The Englishman Audiences Love to Hate. However, there is much more to his talent than elegant villainy, though elegance is a hallmark of his style.
Fiennes is the star of two recent movies—The Invisible Woman,which Fiennes himself directed, and Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel. The Invisible Woman was barely released, whereas The Grand Budapest Hotel is the breakout hit of the spring. But both films—particularly the latter—are worth seeing.
Written by Abi Morgan from Claire Tomalin's biography, The Invisible Woman begins in the 1880s at a boys' school run by George Wharton Robinson (Tom Burke) and his wife Ellen, commonly called Nelly (Felicity Jones). The school is preparing a class play based on a novel by Charles Dickens, and a local vicar is interested in hearing the story of Nelly's childhood friendship with Dickens. This request alarms Nelly, for a very good reason. For years she has kept the secret—from her husband and everyone else—that she was not a little girl when she met Dickens, but a nubile young woman of eighteen. Furthermore, for most of the thirteen years she knew Dickens, Nelly was his mistress.
The story flashes back to 1857, when Nelly, her widowed mother Frances Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her sister Maria (Perdita Weeks) are appearing in The Frozen Deep, a melodrama co-written by Dickens (Fiennes) and Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) and starring Dickens. Dickens, as always, is a commanding presence to everyone around him, and presently he makes it known that he would like to be the commanding presence in Nelly's life.
At first, Nelly is dumbfounded by Dickens' ardency. For one thing, she isn't at all certain how she feels about him, though of course she admires his genius. For another, Dickens is married, albeit unhappily, and has a passel of children who are mostly around Nelly's age. Yet what really yanks the rug from under Nelly is the earnest advice of Frances, who recognizes her daughter's mediocrity as an actress and thinks becoming a great man's kept woman is Nelly's golden opportunity.
Obsession for Nelly, meanwhile, turns Dickens into a wild man. He estranges himself from his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), forbids their children to see her, and lets it be known that anyone who criticizes his conduct, shows any sympathy for Catherine, or slights Nelly in any way is henceforth and forever his enemy.
In its portrayal of overheated passion muffled by Victorian hypocrisy, The Invisible Woman is a claustrophobic viewing experience. It is also a darkly opulent one, benefiting from the photography of Rob Hardy, the production design of Marja Djurkovic, the sets of Tatiana Macdonald and the costumes of Michael O'Connor. But what you are most likely to remember from The Invisible Woman are the performances of Fiennes and Jones.
Fiennes, appropriately, steals every scene he's in. He projects every ounce of the charisma and vitality Dickens was famous for, and we can see why Dickens dominated virtually everyone he met. But Fiennes also delves deeply into the darker side of Dickens' personality. As Tomalin pointed out in her book, Dickens needed not only to dominate but create the world and the people around him, and took it as betrayal when the world and other people refused to do as he expected. (There was something particularly disturbing about Dickens' love for Nelly; compare the existing photographs of her with those of Dickens' daughters Mamie and Katie.) This dictatorial streak came from the same place as his creative genius and his idealism, so that Victorian England was regaled with the contradictory spectacle of a compassionate, charitable man who treated those closest to him ruthlessly.
Dickens, in the end, was all of his characters—Scrooge, Fagin, and Pecksniff as well as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Mr. Micawber. Obviously he would have been hell to live with, but he is thrilling to watch as Fiennes plays him. There are moments—such as when Fiennes gives a magnificent public reading from David Copperfield, or when he charges down the mean streets of London at night—that you feel you must be watching the real Dickens, arisen from his upright grave in Westminster Abbey.
As for Jones, she makes us feel the steel backbone underneath Nelly Ternan's petticoats. Jones' Nelly isn't the blushing pushover Dickens longed for, but a smart and spirited young woman determined to create an identity for herself. That she mostly succeeded in doing so was a triumph for her, and the point of a worthwhile film.
As rambunctious as The Invisible Woman is muted, The Grand Budapest Hotel plays like some mad mitteleuropaeisch mashup of Dickens, Agatha Christie, Ernst Lubitsch, and Mel Brooks. (The actual inspiration for The Grand Budapest Hotel, according to Anderson, is Stefan Zweig, particularly his autobiography, The World of Yesterday.) Many of the movie's characters might reasonably be described as Dickensian, especially the character played by Fiennes: Monsieur Gustave H., the greatest concierge in history, presiding over the titular hotel in the years between the world wars.
Anderson and co-scenarist Hugo Guinness present The Grand Budapest Hotel as a story within a story within a story. At the opening, a renowned author (Tom Wilkinson) from the fictional Republic of Zubrowska begins to tell the story of his much younger self (Jude Law) meeting the mysterious billionaire Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) at Zero's most famous property—the crumbling, once-glamorous Grand Budapest Hotel, nestled in a perpetually snowbound mountain resort.
The story Zero tells is a heady tragicomic mixture of wealth, romance, murder, war, conspiracy and general skullduggery, with the chief backdrop being the Lucullan glamor of the Grand Budapest in its glory days. The young Zero (Tony Revolori) arrives as a refugee at the hotel, working as a lobby boy under the exacting tutelage of M. Gustave. In the servants' quarters, M. Gustave leads an existence as Spartan as any other member of the staff; among the guests, he is the very image of the bountiful, gentlemanly host, but with just enough of the con man about him to let the guests know they can count on him for anything, and I do mean anything. M. Gustave discusses with Zero one of the services he provided for an elderly, recently deceased grande dame played by Tilda Swinton:
M. GUSTAVE: She was dynamite in the sack.
ZERO: She was eighty-four.
M. GUSTAVE: I've had older.
The Byzantine plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel centers on the death of the grande dame, the Old Master painting she bequeaths to M. Gustave, and whether the blame for her death can be laid to M. Gustave or to her weaselly son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), his three hideous sisters, and their sinister henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe). Within the plot are a prison break, various chases across wintry landscapes (including one on skis and another in cable cars), and multiple murders, including the defenestration of a Persian cat. (Gruesome ends for beloved pets are a Wes Anderson staple—see Moonlight Kingdom and The Royal Tenenbaums for confirmation.) The story also provides Anderson with ample opportunity for awe-inspiring visuals (one scene, of a single light bulb descending through multiple levels of a prison, is particularly amazing) and unexpected jokes. Visiting the grande dame in her coffin, M. Gustave compliments her corpse on its immaculate nail polish; a little later, he surreptitiously takes the Old Master painting from its place in the library, and replaces it with a salacious double nude by Egon Schiele.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a resplendent jewel box of a movie, thanks to the photography of Robert D. Yeoman, the production design of Adam Stockhausen and the costumes of Milena Canonero. Set like diamonds inside the movie are the performances of the enormous and magnificent ensemble cast: not only the aforementioned actors but also Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Saiorse Ronan, Mathieu Amalric, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, and Jason Schwartzman. Most of them are only on screen for a few minutes; a few of the actors, such as Owen Wilson and Bob Balaban, have roles that can be measured in seconds. No matter; all of them add to the film's giddy milieu.
Fiennes, however, is the star, and he is a far better comic actor than anyone acquainted only with Goeth and Voldemort would suspect. His M. Gustave projects an eternal, serene, twinkling aplomb, even when he's turning tail and running from the police. This was the sort of performance Peter Sellers or Alec Guinness gave back in the day, and it is the highest compliment to say that Fiennes would have found steady employment at Ealing Studios.
Despite the film's giddy charms, you would have to be Inspector Clouseau to miss the deep undercurrent of sorrow that runs through the film and surfaces, just emphatically enough, at the end. This is appropriate to any movie inspired by the work of Zweig, who committed suicide in Brazilian exile in 1942, despairing that the European civilization he cherished had gone up in flames. Both M. Gustave and Zero, even more than the author, can be considered stand-ins for Zweig. M. Gustave, in his flamboyant way, and Zero, in his more passive one, are the true connoisseurs of the glorious civilization the Grand Budapest Hotel represents—far more so than the greedy patrons they serve, or the brutal soldiers who become increasingly prevalent during the course of the film. (Zero is a refugee, and we can only assume that M. Gustave, with his distinctly non-Zubrowskian name and manner, is one as well.) Everything in the film is bathed in poignant nostalgia; it begins with a present-day schoolgirl paying homage at the grave of the author, who is already long dead. The author begins his story in 1985 about his meeting Zero in 1968, who tells of his adventures in 1932. In other words, everyone in the story is already dead—guardians of a past that may never have existed as we imagine it, but which seems sweeter with each passing year. Anderson knows, and tells us, that "Happily Ever After" is an illusion even in fairy tales. But how we need those tales. We can bet the little boy—presumably a grandson—who interrupts the author's story in the beginning will be repeating it to his own grandchildren, in an even more romanticized way.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a remarkably complex, living film, making us laugh, cry and gape in wonder simultaneously. In the end it resembles nothing so much as one of the Seussian pastries from Mendl's, the film's omnipresent konditorei: crazily opulent, dazzlingly sweet, with an unexpected barb protruding here and there.
POSTSCRIPT: In my April column, I included a short review of Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club. After I wrote and submitted the column, but before its publication, I was informed that the transgender community was protesting Dallas Buyers Club because the filmmakers did not audition transgender actors for the role of Rayon. When I received the proofs, I neglected to add this information. This was an unconscionable lapse on my part, and I apologize for it.