The title for “Youth” must have been someone’s brainchild, but then, what else could they call it? Marigold Hotel 3? “Youth” is set in the Swiss mountains and the Marigold movies were set in tropical India, but they are both just about people of many ages pursuing meaning in their lives. What films do is to provide intriguing, even gorgeous new settings for what are perennial themes, and settings are where the characters gather.
So they create an atmosphere that attracts viewers for the couple of hours necessary for stories to unfold. “Youth” succeeds magnificently in this regard. The characters, gathered together in one place for the duration of the film, enjoy opulent dining, a lavish swimming pool, outdoor recreation in the mountains, and elegantly furnished rooms. It could easily be an Agatha Christie setting. Hercule Poirot would be right at home there, getting to know the masseuse, the waiter, an anonymous unhappy couple that dines silently each evening, a former Miss Universe, and the pool attendants. Finally, he would cast his eyes on the major participants.
But here Poirot is embodied in all of us, and the mysteries are those of everyone’s life: love, work, family, successes, disappointments, recovery, and release. From the beginning, it is clear that because the chief participants–a composer, Fred, played by Michael Caine, and a director, Mick, played by Harvey Keitel–are both musing deeply about their pasts, someone is not going to make it to the final credits. The journalist’s who, what, when, where, and why become the underpinnings of the plot. Since “what” and “where” are givens from the start, the variables are only “when,” “who” and “why.”
A bit Woody Allen-esque in his casual conversations with his film crew, Mick is a director surrounded by younger assistants, all watching their actors work out new scenes. Merriment, smiles and quips abound, but the best photography in the film shows them literally putting their heads together, the camera panning their heads touching in a circular fashion for several seconds while they talk. The same use of the literal comes as the Maestro’s daughter, whose husband has left her, finds a new attraction. Playing her role to subtle perfection, Rachel Weisz is appealing as both the affectionate daughter and dutiful assistant to her father, and she manages to stay calm and carry on.
The themes may be perennial, even trite, but the plot has grit and some original twists. Michael Caine’s character, Fred Ballinger, is invited to conduct one of his favorite compositions, “Simple Songs,” for the Queen of England and to be knighted. He doesn’t really want either one, but ends up going after a series of epiphanies during this convoluted story. Starting at the beginning of the film, a few opening notes from the work are heard at intervals, and so the audience is teased into understanding that these will be of major interest later. In an intermediate scene, Caine hears a violin playing those same notes, follows the sound, and comes across a young boy practicing. He introduces himself as the composer, adjusts the way the boy is holding the bow just a little, and voila—the notes are played much better. It is a sweet moment, and the moments with his daughter are equally moving and adept.
Still, the audience wonders where this is all going. Which character is going to take a fall for the sake of the plot–if any? Meantime, Mick participates in one of the best moments in the film. Numerous of his past characters, all women in costume, appear in a vision on a hillside, both honoring and mocking his past exploits. It seems overwhelming to him and again, the audience is left wondering which of the characters is going to succumb to inner misery. Or not. And some of the longer speeches, although poetic, also provide too much prodding when the point has been made already, especially one by Jane Fonda, whose impatient “Life goes on” line seems even more trite here than it already is.
Go see this one to find out what happens– no spoiler alert here. Jane Fonda turns in a fine small performance as an aging actress, now all made-up with no place to go. Clearly, when it comes to acting well in the later decades, Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Dame Judi Dench, and Dame Maggie Smith don’t have a corner on the market. And the Alps are refreshing, a refined spring break for the generation that preceded the baby boomers.