There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity… He was one of them. What more is there to say?
The concierge, M. Jean, at his post in the Grand Budapest Hotel, © 2014 Scott Rudin Prods.
I have been a Wes Anderson fan since I was in high school. Unfortunately, I felt, and on some level might feel, that his second movie, Rushmore, was his best movie. With an introduction like that you might expect me place this film above it, or near it. In reality, I have no desire to rank his films. I have enjoyed almost every one¹ of his films and that is what matters. But returning to Rushmore, its star was a then unknown teen actor from Hollywood royalty² named Jason Schwartzman. He has a great voice now and had a great voice then. Seeing him as a grown man, as the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel (1968) brought me back, for a moment, to him as a teen. This was a fond memory, but not quite nostalgic, as he was less of a brat and, more than that, it is just a pleasure to still have him around. That suits this film as a whole as it can be said for several of the characters and the hotel itself. The film deals with heavy issues, but it is also a pleasure to watch and to listen to, which is a difficult balance to strike. Part of the Anderson’s tactic is the story within a story within a story narrative.
While I said that Schwartzman has a great voice he has probably the ninth best voice in the cast. Here are my rankings of the main actors/characters and their voices. Hopefully you will glean what the film is about from these rankings, but no promises.
F. Murray Abraham and Jude Law dining and raconteuring in the Grand Budapest Hotel’s dining room, © 2014 Fox Searchlight Pics.
F. Murray Abraham — Salieri—Amadeus—plays Mr. Moustafa, the owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel from post World War II until at least 1985. He sits down to dinner and narrates the primary story to the Young Writer over a feast in the hotel’s restaurant. I cannot think of an actor who portrays melancholy or doomed joy better than Abraham.
Ralph Fiennes — Lord Voldemort plays the principled, yet haughty, concierge of pre-World War II Grand Budapest Hotel, M. Gustave. With an anonymous absentee owner M. Gustave rules the Hotel according to his strict code of chivalry, although that code considers sleeping with the elderly to be a friendly thing to do. Perhaps that is not considered appropriate today, but in 1932 it was probably also considered not an appropriate thing to do…
Mathieu Amalric — The villain from Quantum of Solace plays the wary butler of Madame D. While he has a great French accent, his face does much of the heavy lifting in trying to convey his concerns to M. Gustave. He swears to a lie against his friend in an affidavit before trying to escape with his life.
The Author in The Grand Budapest Hotel, in “1985”, © 2014 Indian Paintbrush.
Tom Wilkinson — Carmine Falconi–Batman Begins–has the bookends of the film as The Author. This is 1985 version of the Young Writer as he addresses the camera for me, for you and for posterity. He also gets to yell at his kids for interrupting his wonderful pontificating.
Jude Law — Dr. Watson from the new Sherlock Holmes movies had the appropriate interest level in Mr. Moustafa and the Grand Budapest Hotel. His role is similar to Wallace Shawn’s in My Dinner With Andre,³ but with many more lines, and he does wind up writing the book that bases one of the stories in this movie. Even the empty look of the dining room reminded me of My Dinner With Andre.
Adrien Brody — The extraordinarily well last named star of The Pianist plays Dmitri, the prick son of Madame D. who will stop at nothing to inherit his mother’s fortune and the priceless painting of Boy With Apple. Jopling is his bulldog attorney/assassin. Brody’s use of a subtle Brooklyn accent, with boiling under/over the surface rage, works superbly.
Willem Dafoe and Adrien Brody as the villains! © 20th Century Fox, 2014.
Saoirse Ronan — Hanna plays Agatha, Zero’s love interest. She has the voice of innocence, but the agency of a free woman. Her freedom stems from being an orphan, similar to Zero. She also had a birthmark on the side of her face in the shape of Mexico, because this is a movie that tells a story within a story within a story, so perhaps some details might have changed in the telling.
Jeff Goldblum — The scientist in an oversized flannel shirt in Independence Day plays Deputy Kovacs, an honorable attorney tasked with executing Madame D.’s will. He sounds like most Goldblum characters, but he does not milk his pauses, which was wonderful.
Bill Murray — Steve Zissou, aka Wes Anderson’s Bill Murray, plays M. Ivan, a concierge at a lodging on par with the Grand Budapest Hotel. He is perfectly suited to this small role, since he has the energy of the position, but the affected diffidence associated with it as well.
Harvey Keitel — Mr. White plays M. Gustave’s cellmate, Ludwig. He is a European convict by way of Brooklyn, with an escape plan that needed an Andy Dufresne to get him access to rock cutting tools. Fortunately there is no sewer with “five hundred yards of shit smelling foulness” in this prison.
Agatha surrounded by concierges in Zubrowka. Waris Ahluwalia, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Wally Wolodarsky, Fisher Stevens, Saoirse Ronan, Tony Revolori and Ralph Fiennes. © Fox Searchlight Pics. 2014.
Edward Norton — Scout Master Ward from Moonrise Kingdom taps back into his Wes Anderson magic as Henkels, an officer in the army of Zubrowka. He remembers a kindness that M. Gustave showed him as a child and pays him back by keeping young Zero from being detained, arrested and deported/shot. He is also a man of honor so he chases after M. Gustave when he escapes from prison. As an aside, the name of the country is the same as the Polish buffalo grass vodka.
Willem Dafoe —Max von Schreck…okay, fine, The Green Goblin from Spider-man, plays Jopling the least ethical attorney I have seen in quite some time. He is a man of few words, but of great intimidation. His appearance, especially his fang like incisors, seemed to be a reference to his performance as Max von Schreck as Count Orlock, the vampire from Nosferatu. As meta as that seems, remember that this is a story within a story guest-starring many of Anderson’s prior actors.
Tilda Swinton — I cannot think of one famous role of hers, although I have seen eight(!) of her movies. So, how about the barge captain’s wife in Young Adam plays the 84 year old Madame D. Under all of the makeup I did not recognize her, nor her voice amongst Madame D.’s quavering. She loves M. Gustave, is the mother to Dmitri, gets killed, and was the richest person in the movie by far.
Léa Seydoux — the badass assassin from the really tall hotel heist in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol plays a morally ambiguous maid in the household of Madame D.
The new lobby boy Zero–Tony Revolori, Madame H.–Tilda Swinton, and M. Gustave–Ralph Fiennes –take the elevator down to the lobby in the Grand Budapest Hotel, in 1932, © 2014 Studio Babelsberg.
Somewhere in a review of the 15th anniversary/director’s cut of Blade Runner, or some such, I learned that voice-over is considered tacky in cinema. So much so that Blade Runner is considered better without Harrison Ford’s voice-over, and Harrison Ford had one hell of a voice in 1982. Another source is Brian Cox’s wonderful lecture in Adaptation, warning screenwriters of the dangers of voice-over.4 If you believe that a film cannot survive voice-over, no matter how excellent, then avoid this film. Voice-overs abound. I found them wonderful and if you can stomach them then you will probably watch this film and enjoy it.
¹ I did not really enjoy The Darjeeling Limited.
² Jason Schwartzman is part of the Coppola family, most famous of which is either Francis Ford Coppola or Nicholas Cage, take your pick.
³ I would not very strongly recommend watching Mr. Dinner Andre. If you do watch it keep an eye open for the steam from the actors’ breath as their restaurant set was an out of season hotel with the heat turned off.
4 Thank you to Steve Poland for the link.