Directed by Paulo Sorrentino
Starring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz
It’s ironic that in an age where many aging film stars seem washed up and past their prime, one of the only stars who isn’t- Michael Caine- seems to play these roles instead. Caine’s character in Youth is comparable to the one in Now You See Me or Harry Brown- the shadow of a powerful figure, in his case an elderly retired composer and conductor. And like many of Caine’s other roles, he delivers a charmingly nuanced role in a superb film.
Premiering in May at Cannes Film Festival, Youth has been slowly making the festival circuit before enjoying a theatrical release in December in America and January 29th in England.
The film, almost completely set in a luxurious Swiss holiday resort, follows Fred Ballinger (Caine) and Mick Boyle (Keitel), a failing film director trying to create his swan song, as they deal with the mental and physical effects of aging. The resort is populated by other minor characters who help them along the way- for example an actor living under the shadow of a former role, a boy trying to learn violin, or an ailing Diego Maradona. The two have to try and understand the relationship between age and the past, or their sexualities, or the future.
With such a morbid plot, it’s surprising how charmingly funny this film is. Caine’s gentle acting lets us empathise with his confusion at the modern world, and Keitel’s furious ambivalence towards his memory creates many great moments. For each theme portrayed- age, sexuality, betrayal- the script deals with it using an even hand of humour and sombre reality. This fair portrayal of life is one of the most endearing features of Paulo Sorrentino’s film.
The cinematography is highly enjoyable in its restrained depiction of the events. Since the story is set in similar looking locations around the resort in Switzerland, the shooting uses similar angles and locations to give the events a timeless feel, as though the green hills and mountains are just a replacement for the characters’ failing memory.
With the protagonist being a composer and conductor, music is obviously an important part of the film. The use of natural sounds to create music, very noticeable in some scenes, helps us get into Ballinger’s head regarding his thoughts on the past and present of his music, important plot points. His pièce de résistance, ‘Simple Song #3’ by David Lang, has been nominated for a ‘Best Original Song’ Academy Award, a testament to the original music. When not directly linked to the plot, the music is well-thought-out and appropriate, although it can occasionally get monotonous.
The premise of Youth isn’t as universally enjoyable as many other film premises are- instead, the beauty of the film comes from the smaller parts. Caine and Keitel give enjoyable and detailed performances, the shooting and music help to weave together the tone and the film is much, much funnier than a film about aging ever should be. Without any of these parts Youth would be a very different film- but it’s a testament to Paulo Sorrentino’s direction that he pulls it off so well.
Review by Tom Bedford