Italian director Paolo Sorrentino made one of the best films of this century with The Great Beauty in 2013. Youth, his follow-up now arrives with a sense of expectation, which is exactly the sort of thing this director likes to frustrate – although he never disappoints.
Youth, made in English, shares The Great Beauty’s sense of faded grandeur, a melancholy infused with baroque twirls and a bizarre sense of humour. It stars Michael Caine as a retired composer now residing in an Alpine hotel spa where other wealthy and famous people come to rehabilitate and escape.
Caine’s Fred Ballinger is being called out of his self-imposed exile by the Queen who wants him to conduct his famous work “Simple Songs” for Prince Philip’s birthday. Ballinger is reluctant to perform again and his wallowing in pity alongside his old friend, the American film maker Mick Boyle, tenderly played by Harvey Keitel, who is also trying to workshop a new movie script at the hotel.
The pair lounge about having massages and sitting in jacuzzis, reflecting on past glories and the passing of youth, an image crystallised for them (and us) by the lithe sight of a former Miss Universe (Madeline Diana Ghenea) slinking about the place in a bikini.
Rachel Weisz fusses around – also occasionally in a swimsuit – playing Fred’s daughter and amanuensis Lena, herself heartbroken as her husband Julian has just left her for pop star Paloma Faith. Meanwhile in a running gag, a famously tubby Argentinian former footballer plays keepy-uppy by the pool. “Is that really him?” ask visitors, just as we ask ourselves. (It isn’t – Roly Serrano is the uncanny lookalike who plays, yes, Maradona.)
Suddenly, Jane Fonda, playing a Hollywood diva called Brenda, turns up to help unblock Mick’s stuttering screenplay, although her electrifying presence has a tangentially tragic effect on old dogs Mick and Fred.
As you can tell, there’s a certain bonkers element to Sorrentino but that’s why we like his films. They’re wry and weird and off-kilter yet easily relatable. We understand Caine’s hurt and his regret and this is certainly one of the best performances of his late career, possibly of his whole career, a career which, in reflection, is kind of bound up in this character, in his baleful eyes and wavy old hair, a sort of cantankerousness cosseted in a fluffy towelling robe.
Using moods, mixes of music both classical and rock, and breathtaking visual compositions, Sorrentino’s films toggle between loneliness and love and exist in their own alternate universes, not too far removed from ours. And so, too, Youth, a strangely beautiful film which crescendoes to an emotionally surprising climax that’s both uplifting and tearfully sad. Bravo.