Youth

Review by Adam Woodward @AWLies

Directed by

Paolo Sorrentino

Starring

Harvey Keitel Michael Caine Rachel Weisz

Anticipation.

We tend to run hot and cold on Paolo Sorrentino, but this one has bags of promise.

Enjoyment.

A joyous, gently moving experience anchored by a fearless central turn from Michael Caine.

In Retrospect.

A simple song.

A legend of British cinema teams with Italy’s master of screen sensuality to tell a sparkling tale of nostalgia and sorrow.

We tend to think of the ageing process as one of perpetual decline. The body grows weak, the mind tires, memories fade. Accepting our own mortality is one of the hardest realisations we face as human beings, yet the reality is that only a few of us will reach the point where “natural causes” – that most curious and vague of medical euphemisms – becomes a viable cause of death. We fear what we cannot control and believe the best we can hope for is a quick and painless exit. But what matters more: the manner in which you go, or making sure you’re at peace with the world when your time is up?

In Youth, writer/director Paolo Sorrentino’s operatic ode to old age, we’re reminded that regardless of how many milestones someone passes, respect can take a lifetime to earn and a second to lose. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) may have some way to go before he can expect to receive a letter from the Queen, but here, on his annual retreat to the Swiss Alps, a different kind of Royal message becomes the catalyst for a cathartic cleansing of the soul.

Ballinger is a British composer famed for his ‘Simple Songs’, which he is cordially invited – with great insistence from Her Majesty’s toadying emissary (Alex Macqueen) – to conduct at a birthday concert for Prince Philip in London. He graciously declines citing “personal reasons”, which seems like a convenient excuse from someone whose fire has apparently gone out. Later, after being pressed by the emissary during a second fruitless visit, a now visibly irritated Ballinger offers a more satisfactory explanation, the full weight of which isn’t felt until the closing stages of this extraordinary, life-affirming film.

This is Sorrentino’s second English-language feature after 2011’s This Must Be the Place, and while its meandering, idiosyncratic qualities ostensibly place it in the same stall as that David Byrne fanboy folly, Youth is an altogether more enriching character study. A good deal of the plaudits must go to Caine, who at 82 puts in one of the most daring, distinguished performances of his career. That heartfelt confession to the Queen’s hapless messenger aside, this is a role that requires emotional intelligence without overstatement. Ballinger feels so lived-in that you begin to wonder whether Caine invested anything of himself in the part – at one point it’s revealed that Ballinger previously refused a knighthood; in real life Caine has publicly stated that he is not fussed whether people refer to him as “Sir”.

Caine can still deliver a stirring monologue when he needs to, but there’s nothing here quite so ostentatious as his ‘some men just want to watch the world burn’ speech from The Dark Knight. (Christopher Nolan could learn a thing or two from the way Sorrentino structures his script to play to the veteran actor’s various strengths.) Ballinger may have officially retired, but in truth he never stopped conducting – whether he’s wiping his nose with a handkerchief or rhythmically scrunching a sweet wrapper between his fingers. Instinctive gestures tell us more about his character than dialogue ever could, and Caine masters these mannerisms with all the craft and guile of a true maestro.

Sorrentino has a decent track record when it comes to working with seasoned leads, of course, having helped Toni Servillo find his sweet spot in 2013’s The Great Beauty. Like that La Dolce Vita-lite satiric drama, Youth is a meditation on life, love and loss as told through the mournful eyes of a somewhat selfish, somewhat senile protagonist. Yet while the sense of unfulfillment afflicting Servillo’s elderly Roman socialite is born out of a general yearning for the past, the onset of Ballinger’s apathy is intrinsically linked to a ghost from his present. It’s telling that when the time to confront it finally arrives, the overwhelming feeling towards him is one of compassion. Herein lies Sorrentino’s greatest trick: we’re always happy to be in Ballinger’s company without ever truly caring about his struggles with grief and guilt. Until suddenly we do, and it’s utterly heartbreaking.

Ballinger isn’t the only one putting up a front. The remoteness and tranquility offered by this idyllic Alpine setting attracts an unusual array of celebrities. But while Paul Dano’s cred-hungry Hollywood actor, Jimmy Tree, an obese South American football icon and Miss Universe are each either trying to escape the limelight or else figuring out how they can get more of it, the thing that Ballinger is searching for is less tangible. For best friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), it’s not a case of what he’s hiding from but what he hopes to find. Mick is a renowned director who’s past his prime but doesn’t know it (or maybe he’s simply in denial).

The script for his next and possibly final film – which he prematurely refers to as his “testament” – is almost finished but lacks an ending, so he and four budding screenwriters have booked into the luxury spa resort, willing inspiration to strike. So far it’s proven frustratingly elusive. In one scene while out taking in the spectacular mountain scenery, Mick uses a tourist telescope to illustrate the difference between how close the future seems in youth compared to how distant the past appears with age. Sorrentino’s use of symbolism ranges from absurd to inelegant, but this crystallising moment is perhaps the most eloquent expression of the film’s emotional power.

“We’re always happy to be in Ballinger’s company without ever truly caring about his struggles with grief and guilt. Until suddenly we do, and it’s heartbreaking.”

Then there’s Ballinger’s daughter and personal assistant, Lena (Rachel Weisz), who’s used to solving other people’s problems but is plunged into a crisis of her own after being cruelly dumped by her fiancée (who also happens to be Mick’s son). When Lena’s father attempts to console her by extending an olive branch of empathy, she unleashes a ferocious expletive-ridden tirade. He never really knew her mother, Lena claims, and thus can’t even begin to understand everything she’s going through now.

An even more cutting rejection occurs late on when Mick is visited by his former muse, the notorious diva Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda, dressed to the nines in a riotously funny cameo). He’s been trying to convince her to star in his film knowing he won’t get funding without her, but she’s not about to do an old friend any favours. Both women owe a debt to the men whose respective genius continues to cast a long shadow, yet crucially the overriding theme is one of male inadequacy.

Caine and Keitel’s winning chemistry occasionally threatens to turn Youth into The Fred and Mick Show, but Sorrentino always manages to find a way to underpin their geriatric banter (bodily dysfunction is an especially popular topic of conversation) with something more profound. With their flaws laid bare, the two men slowly come around to the idea that it’s never too late to start making up for past mistakes. This is a film that doesn’t claim to have all the answers to life’s biggest questions but, as with all great works of art, one that leaves plenty open to interpretation. And much like life itself, what you get out of it ultimately depends on what you’re willing to bring to it.

Published 28 Jan 2016

Anticipation.

We tend to run hot and cold on Paolo Sorrentino, but this one has bags of promise.

Enjoyment.

A joyous, gently moving experience anchored by a fearless central turn from Michael Caine.

In Retrospect.

A simple song.

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