Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel star in Paolo Sorrentino’s latest. Here’s Jamie Graham’s reaction…
Paolo Sorrentino’s new feature, Youth, is a companion piece to his last feature, The Great Beauty, albeit in a more minor key. It is an introspective work of tenderness, melancholy, joy, humour and considerable compassion, with the Italian director’s signature visual flair ensuring that any and all contemplation comes with a blast of brio. After 2011’s This Must Be The Place, it is his second English-language work.
Set in a luxurious hotel-cum-spa in the foothills of the Alps, Youth centres on two old friends, Fred (Michael Caine) and Mick (Harvey Keitel), the former a retired composer and the latter a film director who’s blocked on the final scene of his new screenplay. With their mortality very much in focus and their pasts retreating into the hazy distance, they go unhurriedly about their days, dining, strolling, wading in the pool, receiving massages and medical check-ups, and encountering fellow guests. Key among these are Fred’s daughter and assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz), whose husband has just left her for Paloma Faith (played by, yes, Paloma Faith), and young American actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), who’s worked for “all the great directors” but is forever associated with a robot he played in a Hollywood blockbuster.
Plot is not high on Sorrentino’s mind, and what little there is – an emissary of the Queen pops up on a couple of occasions to try and persuade Fred out of retirement to conduct a performance of his famous ‘Simple Songs’ for Prince Philip’s birthday – is really more of a MacGuffin to set memories, realisations and understandings a-swirling.
With his swept back white hair, heavy-framed glasses, immaculately knotted ties, debonair deportment and characterful face shot to accentuate every pouch, jowl and crevice, Caine here resembles Sorrentino’s favourite leading man, Toni Servillo. To invite such a comparison is to ask a lot an actor, even one of Caine’s experience and skill: Sevillo’s partnerships with the filmmaker have wielded some extraordinary performances, never more so than his soul-raking turn as Rome socialite Jep Gambardella in The Great Beauty. But Caine brings his own particular set of skills to play, investing Fred with a humour that’s both wistful and wry; only now, in his winter years, is he approaching understanding for the pain he has wrought on his family, but does so with more acceptance than anxiety.
Keitel, too, favours gentle warmth over heart-freezing neuroses, though there is a sudden, shocking stare into the abyss of his waning prowess when his leading lady of 11 movies, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), arrives to tell him she’s departing his next project. Over a volley of ‘you can’t handle the truth’ exchanges, these two exceptional actors, both firebrands in their youth, momentarily turn Youth into something resembling an excoriating relationship drama by Bergman, Fassbinder or Cassavetes.
But this is Sorrentino’s film, from the opening pirouette around the spa’s entertainment act to a rousing finale that’s at once grandiose and disciplined. The director finds great beauty in the spa’s serene interiors, manicured lawns and surrounding countryside, but the abstract, surreal and the seriocomic are never far away: a half underwater, half overwater shot giving us small heads misaligned to magnified bodies in a swimming pool; the mooing of cows and the jangling of their bells forming a symphony in Fred’s head; actor Jimmy arriving for breakfast in full uniform as Hitler, replete with side-parting and moustache.
Just as the ruminations on life and art are brought to us without verbal fireworks, there’s less swoop and swirl to the visuals here than there was in The Great Beauty. But then Sorrentino has always been something of a visual chameleon – compare the poise of The Consequences Of Love to the camera chaos of Il Divo – and it’s the themes that remain: ageing, memory, creativity, love, loss, and forgiveness. Youth is Sorrentino’s aria, and is one for the ages.
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