Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Major Players: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Jane Fonda
Out Of Five: 3.5
The latest from Paolo Sorrentino has taken a while to reach British cinemas. Its reception at Cannes last year was a mixture of boos and cheers, but maybe that demonstrated how we feel about the underlying subject of the film. Not youth, but aging.
Retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is on holiday at a luxurious Swiss spa with his old friend, film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). While Fred has determinedly severed all connections with his career, Mick is equally determined to make his last significant film – his testament – and has a team of young writers working with him on the script. Fred receives a visitor from Buckingham Palace and is invited to play his most famous composition for The Queen and Duke Of Edinburgh. But he turns it down for, what as far as he’s concerned, is a very good reason.
Sorrentino has created some stylish and striking images. Some add to the story: Caine and Keitel in the swimming pool, with just their heads and shoulders visible and their expressions as they watch Miss Universe enjoying the water on the other side of the pool are wistful, bashful and beautifully funny. Some are just great to look at: lines of people in the swimming pool, viewed from above and below the water and on the waterline, so they look oddly truncated. And some are just plain strange: actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) has been preparing for his next role in the spa and unleashes it on the unsuspecting residents in the restaurant. He’s playing Hitler and sports the mandatory tache and hair.
In fact, it isn’t just that scene with Dano that doesn’t fit: his character simply doesn’t belong in the film. There are hints initially that he’s going to be the young mirror image of Fred, but he’s not. And that makes him completely superfluous. Take him out of proceedings and you really wouldn’t miss him and nor would the film – something of a waste of the likes of Dano.
The film is all about age. The physical indignity. Caine and Keitel compare notes daily on their respective abilities to pee. Disguising it, as exemplified by aging actress Brenda (Jane Fonda). Yes, that is Fonda underneath grotesquely thick layers of make up and a conspicuous blonde wig – and you can see the proverbial join! Despite all her efforts, there’s no disguising the skin on her well-manicured hands. The friendships we make and unmake along the way. Fred and Mick have known each other for 60 years, lusted after the same girls, and holidayed with each other for years as well. Yet they both admit they only told each other the good things. They’re really nothing more than acquaintances.
And there’s the most acute image of all, the unforgettable sight of an aging woman in the latter stages of dementia. It’s the unavoidable skull lurking beneath the entire film and darkens its hitherto light tone in the blink of an eye. Except that she doesn’t appear to blink.
It’s a film that also, curiously, likes to flirt with celebrity, and this has nothing to do with Mick’s film. There’s Paloma Faith as herself, there’s Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea) who’s won a stay at the spa as part of her prize. And there’s an unnamed, overweight South American with a huge tattoo on his back. Now who could that be? In case we haven’t guessed, it’s pointed out that he’s left handed – but the odd thing is that it’s Dano’s character who mentions it. Given that what they call soccer isn’t that big with the Americans, it’s surprising that he knows ……
Caine’s performance has come in for a lot of praise and it’s full of subtleties and little details. He’s given up the one thing he only even understood – music – and is offered the chance to take up the baton again, one that he initially rejects but then realises could give his final years some meaning. On the surface, he and Keitel are an unlikely pairing yet they’re completely convincing as the old friends, comfortable with each other but only within their clearly defined perameters. And Fonda is something of a scene stealer as the cold hearted, old-style Hollywood star.
Youth is bittersweet, attractive to look at and boasts some good performances. The frustration lies in its inability to hang together as a complete whole. What feels like somebody’s swan song has actually been written and directed by somebody who’s yet to hit 50. But perhaps this is the film that Keitel’s character should have made.
Youth is released on Friday, 29 January and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 28 January.