Film review: YOUTH from ‘Built For Speed’

With its meticulously composed shots, remote Alpine hotel setting and all-pervading quirkiness, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth immediately recalls the films of Wes Anderson. In the end, though, this meditation on ageing mortality and artistic ambition offers something more confronting than Anderson’s typical comical weirdness.

Michael Caine stars as revered classical composer and conductor Fred Ballinger who, for initially mysterious reasons, has abandoned his music career and retreated to an upmarket health spa in the Swiss Alps. There he spends his time discussing the perils of growing old with long-time friend, film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), infuriating his daughter and personal assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz) and observing the strange behaviour of guests who include an alarmingly fat Diego Maradonna. It becomes clear that a tragedy involving his wife has driven Fred to this retreat but his attempts to suppress that anguish are challenged when an emissary (Alex Macqueen) of none other than the Queen requests that he perform for her and Prince Phillip a collection of songs that only Fred’s wife had previously sung.

Like Wes Anderson’s films, Youth will instantly alienate viewers who abhor obtuseness, relentless oddness and a lack of plot.  Many will be asking ‘what the hell the film is going on this film?’.   Those prepared to embrace this movie as a mood piece and a quiet reflection on life will, however, be rewarded. The film becomes more interesting as it begins to dig beneath the quirkiness and oddball behaviour and explores its characters’ painful regrets and self-doubts.

Youth is also a homage to cinema itself with references to Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Alain Resnais’ notorious 1960 art-house brain-boggler Last Year at Marienbad. It’s a remarkable looking film with its crystalline cinematography, shots that recall Kubrick as well as Anderson and stunning use of the mountainous locations. This is also a treat for music fans as Sorrentino features some superb classical pieces by David Lang and fine songs from the likes of Mark Kozelek, who also appears in the film.

Michael Caine gives a wonderfully measured and in the end, moving performance as the conflicted Fred. Harvey Keitel is magnetic as the more forthright Mike although it feels a little odd to see Keitel relegated to a secondary character. Paul Dano is particularly Anderson-esque as a contemptuous and pretentious actor who laments the fact that he is only known for his role as a robot called Mr Q. Dano’s character is more of an oddity, though and isn’t quite given the chance to evolve into something memorable. The always wonderful Rachel Weisz does the best she can with her role as Fred’s embittered daughter but the sub-plot involving her losing her husband to pop star Paloma Faith is neither emotionally affecting nor funny. Amid a procession of unusual cameos Jane Fonda stands out magnificently as a flinty veteran actress and muse of sorts to Mick who triggers a devastating turn of events.

The film isn’t always as compelling, funny or emotionally resonant as Sorrentino apparently wanted us to think but this exquisitely constructed film contains a number of indelible moments particularly its finale which is both extremely sad an uplifting.

Nick’s rating: ****.

Genre: Comedy/ drama.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Paolo Sorrentino.

Release date: 26th December 2015.

Running time: 118 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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