Ring for reception: Tony Revolori as Zero (centre) in Wes Anderson's artfully fake hotel
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Travelling light: The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson

Anderson’s style became paralysed around the time of The Royal Tenenbaums and this is no exception.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (15)
dir: Wes Anderson

Each year that passes without an announcement that Ralph Fiennes has agreed to be the lead in a Leonard Rossiter biopic is one to be regretted – but his performance in the Wes Anderson film The Grand Budapest Hotel is the next best thing. Playing Gustave H, a voluble concierge whose fastidious manner gives way to tremors of panic, Fiennes is as skilful at exploring the shortfall between pretence and reality as Rossiter ever was. He can communicate a lifetime of disappointment in the tiniest slackening of the jaw, or a salacious fantasy in the twitch of an eyebrow. He brings mischief and joy to a film that is in most other respects closed off.

Gustave can be demure and earthy, often at the same time, whether boasting about his sexual encounters with an 83-year-old society dame (“I’ve had older”) or cutting short his own reverie on humanity (“Oh, fuck it”). He insists that his staff are spick and span but it seems he could at any moment fall apart. His response to being suspected of murder following the death of his elderly conquest Madame D (Tilda Swinton) is to absorb the news silently, wait a beat, then bolt madly into the distance. But he can regain his pretensions and composure in an instant. Receiving a visitor while in prison, he explains away his purple eye with a fanciful monologue that could just as easily have run: “You should see the other guy . . .”

The death of Madame D and the reading of a will in which she bequeaths a priceless painting to Gustave are the catalysts for a convoluted, caper-style plot that would be as exhausting to recount as it is exasperating to follow. One consolation for a viewer not persuaded by this forced zaniness is the delicate friendship between Gustave and the hotel’s lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori). It doesn’t offer any advance on the mad mentor/wise protégé relationships in some of Anderson’s previous movies but it is enchanting in a way the mechanical narrative never is.

The period is 1940s wartime – though what we see are parallel hostilities in a fictional universe, rather than the Second World War. Presumably this is to insulate the comedy from actual suffering. A Wes Anderson film that touched at any point upon reality would scarcely be able to bear his name.

That is not to say that his movies aren’t emotionally alive. Yet a viewer’s tolerance to the arch dialogue, painstakingly composed tableaux and infinitely detailed sets can depend on how much spontaneity and human warmth is allowed to leak in. Anderson’s first two features, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, remain his most exhilarating because he was still learning and experimenting; his visual technique had a looseness that offset the tight, literary writing.

Around the time of his third feature, The Royal Tenenbaums, his controlled style became paralysed and it has been a matter since then of looking out for occasional vital signs. Pain and longing used to be palpable in his films no matter how manufactured the world he concocted. To compare the unrequited love story in Rushmore with the twee romantic subplot in The Grand Budapest Hotel is like placing a Leonard Cohen lyric next to a Hallmark card.

The intensity of the artifice cuts off most avenues for engagement. Anderson uses ostentatiously fake backdrops to alert us to the facade, just as Fellini did in And the Ship Sails On. The entire picture is built like a nest of Russian dolls, from the script’s triple-flashback structure to the recurring images of windows and trapdoors opening to create separate frames within the film frame. What smothers the comedy is the palpable effort that goes into each set piece or joke. The whimsical tone grows wearisome when the gags fall flat. There are several episodes here, including a prison break and a montage of international concierges (“the Society of Crossed Keys”), in which the space for laughter or admiration may be filled instead by incredulity that Anderson went to so much trouble for such paltry returns.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder