A fragmented elegy to desire, sex, ageing, and death is an unexpected turn for Michael Caine, whose recent roles have mainly been in big budget Christopher Nolan films. Caine is a performer who’s never shied away from admitting that he’s taken a job purely for the pay cheque, but with Youth, he delivers a nuanced performance of quiet poignancy that’s marks some of the best work that he’s ever done.
The film tells the story of Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a renowned composer enjoying his annual stay at a Swiss alpine hotel spa with his friend, esteemed film director, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). The men muse on the state of their urinary function, and make observations on other hotel guests, old flames, missed opportunities, their children’s troubles, and their careers. Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), wrestles with a failing marriage to Mick’s son, Julian (Ed Stoppard), while Fred forms a light friendship with fellow hotel guest, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), an A-list actor preparing for his next role. Also in the mix is Mick’s most famous leading lady and muse, Brenda (Jane Fonda), who visits him at the hotel to discuss a new role and, in one incendiary sequence, delivers an evisceration of his career, legacy, and self-regard.
It’s a tough film to do justice in a review because it’s structured more as music than a straight narrative. Director Paolo Sorrentino’s (The Great Beauty, This Must Be The Place) light touches of eroticism, deeply wrought drama, and comic flourishes starkly juxtapose with inflections of soaring Fellini-esque imagery, thanks to Luca Bigazzi’s stunning lensing and a terrific orchestral score by David Lang. Youth functions effortlessly on a hypnotic ebb and flow, and climaxes in a final sequence that is resonant and moving. We watch films in the hope that we get to have experiences like this.