Film review: Youth

David Gritten / 28 January 2016

Saga film critic David Gritten recommends Youth, a visually arresting portrait of two talented men in old age.

Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s last film The Great Beauty, set in Rome, won plaudits and accolades, including best foreign film at the Oscars. His new film Youth won’t scale those heights, but visually it’s one of the most striking films of the year. Its sheer beauty could make you swoon.

It’s set at a wildly expensive Alpine spa resort, where two elderly friends, British composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and American film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) watch the other guests and reflect on the passing of time and their own mortality.

Fred receives a visit from a fawning royal courtier (Alex Macqueen, familiar from Holby City) who the Queen has sent to implore him to conduct a performance of his most popular work, Simple Songs, for Prince Philip. The lure of a knighthood is dangled, but Fred refuses “for personal reasons” which movingly become clear later on. Mick, meanwhile, is working with a team of equally fawning screenwriters on what he has planned as his final film, called Life’s Last Day.

Yet there are strange quirks in the story. Fred’s daughter and personal assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz) is bitter and unhappy – all the more so when her husband leaves her for pop singer Paloma Faith – played in the film by none other than Paloma Faith. 

Then there’s an American actor (played by Paul Dano, currently wowing TV audiences as Pierre in War and Peace) who wants to escape from his role as a robot in a hit American movie, and work in a serious-minded German film. Jane Fonda makes a brief, startling appearance as a washed-up star actress who pours scorn on Mick’s film project.

Related: Read our interview with Jane Fonda about Youth

Other bizarre guests include a hugely obese man who walks with a stick but is an ace at keepy-uppy with a tennis ball. (An ex-footballer? A nod to Diego Maradona? We’re never told.) There’s a guru who seems able to levitate himself. Miss Universe, who is staying at the spa, turns out to be smart and resourceful, and wades splendidly naked into the hotel thermal pool, while Fred and Mick gaze at her – not quite lustfully, more with a wistful awareness of their age.

There are several bizarre touches like these, and the film could be dismissed as a pretentious folly. But its visual beauty has the power to sweep you along with it – and its bitter-sweet finale is born of real feeling and emotion. Caine and Keitel are hugely watchable, and in the end, Youth feels like an indulgent delight.

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