The Best Offer
Written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. Starring Geoffrey Rush, Jim Sturgess, Sylvia Hoeks, Donald Sutherland, Liya Kebede, Philip Jackson, Dermot Crowley, Brigitte Christensen.
A quiet, haunting drama-cum-thriller from director Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso, A Pure Formality), The Best Offer slowly draws you in to its serpentine story before carefully peeling back the layers. One of the film’s greatest pleasures is watching it unfold, not knowing what happens next (in other words, don’t read up too much on it); it’s a testament to the director that you don’t know exactly where this is going.
The film takes place in the world of art and art auctions, centered around the world aging, OCD-afflicted Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush) and his day job: evaluating art pieces, and auctioning them off at high-end houses. (It’s a curious choice of name, by the way, for the lead character; every time someone mentions “Mr. Oldman” – which is frequent – we can’t help but think of Gary. One wonders if Tornatore had that actor in mind when he wrote the script.)
It may seem like a traditionally honest profession, but Virgil isn’t exactly honest: he undervalues pieces he would like to obtain for himself, and then signals to his partner in the audience (played by Donald Sutherland) when to bid on them (“this item will go to the best offer…”).
It doesn’t seem like someone could get away with this for long – surely, some owner would insist on another evaluation – but this is used for character development rather than being a focal point of the story. Virgil, a lonely and isolated man, is interested in one particular kind of artwork, and has a secret room in his home with portraits of women.
He also follows some strict precedents: he always wears a pair of leather gloves, and turns down a piece of cake – which he would otherwise enjoy – because it is a few hours shy of his birthday. On his birthday, he also (per tradition) answers the first telephone call of the day at his office instead of his assistant.
On the other line is a young woman, Claire Ibbetson (Sylvia Hoeks), who begs Virgil to come by her parent’s estate to evaluate their belongings for a future auction. He visits her home only to be stood up, and returns to be stood up again. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but begins to evaluate her belongings after only speaking to her on the phone.
Claire, you see, is a recluse with debilitating agoraphobia: she hasn’t left her home, or had any interaction with outsiders, for twenty years. Originally frustrated, Virgil slowly becomes fascinated by her, having conversations behind a closed door, spying on her through a crack, trying to get through to her and get her to come outside…
And just as Virgil is drawn to Clare, so are we to the film, slowly becoming compelled to find out just where this story is going. Touching, heartfelt, and melancholy (but never manipulative), Tornatore carefully strings us along until the quietly devastating conclusion.
Geoffrey Rush is terrific in the lead, a surprisingly rare occurrence for the actor who won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1995’s Shine (since, he’s only been asked to carry Quills and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, though he’s had significant supporting work in films like The King’s Speech). It’s a low-key performance that, like the film, slowly grows on us; we don’t expect to like this character at the start, but are surprised how much we care for his plight by the climax.
Jim Sturgess plays a key role as Robert, a tinkerer who Virgil confides in and slowly delivers mechanical parts to in an automaton-building subplot that recalls Hugo.
The final sequence in The Best Offer was filmed in Prague’s Old Town, with the recently-closed Pivnice U Milosrdných, decadently outfitted with a series of clocks, filling in for the story’s key location. Other European locales included Rome, Milan (and elsewhere in Italy), and Vienna, all gorgeously captured by cinematographer Fabio Zamarion.
The excellent original soundtrack, with those haunting vocals (and, surprisingly, a dash of 1970s Italian giallo), was composed by Ennio Morricone and performed by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.