The Best Offer, the latest feature from Academy Award-winning director Guiseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso), is a classy and atmospheric thriller with many haunting Hitchcock-esque qualities. Immaculately scored and photographed with room for artistic indulgence that layers the production with great beauty, the cogs in the screenplay barely miss a beat. It is a fascinating character study and a sophisticated and engrossing mystery brimming with passion and romantic intrigue and high-culture deception. I sat down knowing nothing about the film and within minutes I was captivated. Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush, outstanding and amongst his career-best for me) is a cultured, eccentric and solitary man whose reluctance to engage with women is matched only by the obsessive nature with which he practices as the managing director of a leading auction house and as an evaluator of high-end art and antiques. When the neurotic and short-tempered Virgil receives a call from a mysterious young heiress named Claire Ibbotson (Dutch youngster Sylvia Hoeks), a request to evaluate the paintings and antiques cluttering her sprawling villa, he finds his strict rules aren’t adhered to. Much to his frustration Claire at first refuses to meet him in person, but later reveals that she must remain locked away because of a long-suffering illness. Virgil becomes doubly fascinated by what he finds in the house – including an 18th Century talking automaton that he enlists his friend Robert (a charming Jim Sturgess), a mechanical genius, to assemble and repair – but also the identity of Claire, a woman who may for the first time have captured his heart.
Through his profession Virgil has developed an eye for differentiating between a work of authenticity and a fake - a skill he has for years taken advantage of with the help of his friend Billy (a magnificently bearded Donald Sutherland), building an extensive private collection of master paintings purchased well below their true value. This often-indecipherable difference is an important theme throughout the film. As experienced as Virgil is, he has never been able to analyse people the same way as he does his art. Nor has he been interested in doing so, unless that person has something to offer him. Can Virgil determine whether feelings (his own, others) are authentic, and whether he can trust those of whom he has surrendered secrets?
I have never seen a film with a protagonist quite like Virgil, or one with an affliction quite like Claire’s. This set-up was fascinating. Virgil has suppressed his desires for women and rather than seek the long overdue human companionship he has adorned his exquisitely decorated male boudoir with priceless portraits of women – his personal universe of females, the artistic stand-ins for the real thing. He finds pleasure in simply sitting and admiring their faces; a privilege denied him by Claire. She ruffles his feathers - at first angering him with her lack of punctuality, intriguing him by her mysterious requests, saddening him with the reveal of her affliction and finally seducing and entrancing him with her beauty and grace. This is the first woman he has ever connected with, the first time he has opened his vault of feelings and given in to his desires. Will this desire for Claire, to love and settle down with a woman who seems to reciprocate the feeling, overwhelm his passion for art and wealth? An appraisal of Claire’s inherited belongings reveals that their value is immense, and his auction house will surely flourish as a result.
All of the cinematic elements are breathtaking – Tornatore directs with immense confidence and the sublime photography, the lavish design of the sets and costumes, the wonderful score from regular Tornatore collaborator Ennio Morricone, the terrific lead performance from Geoffrey Rush, and the fine supporting work from Sutherland and Sturgess – collaborate to build an intoxicating experience. The pacing was perfect and with nay a frame nor detail out of place nor without purpose, I just didn’t want this film to end.
I was swept up in the mystery of The Best Offer. My brain was working at the highest rate absorbing all of the nuances in the screenplay, deciphering the clues laid out, trying to make sense of Virgil’s (and my own) mounting anxieties. The reveal is devastating, and I was so wrapped up in the story and cared so much for Virigil's character - despite his pompous self-importance, and immoral squirreling - that I nearly broke down in tears. The experience immediately following the film, trying to put all of the disparate fragments in order, was equally rewarding. If an astute problem-solving mind predicts where this is going before the shocking denouement, then I feel the impact of the film will not be as gut wrenching. My experience with this unique and emotional film – an increasingly uneasy thriller that Hitchcock would have been proud of – came about completely unexpectedly, and I hope everyone I have told about this film shares it too.
[rating=4] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.