Lost In Boston

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

7 days, 1 city, and countless cups of coffee.

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Charles River

“The cold never bothered me anyway”. Charles River, partially frozen

      At 21, it felt somewhat momentous to be venturing out to the States for the first time since being bestowed with legality concerning alcohol consumption. And flying solo, no less. Swanning through the airport I felt a certain freedom that accompanied my lack of accompaniment. I could invent a whole new story about who I was, or why I was jetting out to Boston in March. My passport may have encumbered such attempts at reinvention, but the possibility was there no less! This taste of freedom was pleasantly washed down by a Bloody Mary aboard the flight and had it not been for a swift delivery of food alongside the complimentary bottle of wine (a mini-one), I risked resembling Kristen Wiig a la Bridesmaids. But all in all it was a smooth flight tempered by excitement and delusions of maturity.

boarding pass Having visited Boston when I was 18, I felt relatively familiar with it’s terrain.

It appeared to me a serene and languid city, one that rewarded those not in a hurry and whom had the time the soak up the distinctly different vibes of each neighbourhood.

That we were there for a week and not in the peak of tourist season seemed the perfect amount of time to explore without rushing. To revisit favourite cafes and restaurants, and do things off the beaten track.

With that in mind, I have compiled a list of sorts that regales the best bits of my Bostonian experience.

(Photographs are all my own).

Scenery

skyline

As with any city, the skyline is often the place to look for 5 star views and Boston certainly didn’t disappoint. Especially when combined with the series of intense sunsets that took place over the several nights we were there. This is a view into Back Bay from our hostel, overlooking the John Hancock tower.

Harvard Bridge

The Harvard Bridge

   I would recommend walking along the Charles River, from pretty much any angle, for spectacular views across the city. Along the Esplanade (a 3 mile walk next to the River) you have the city behind you (or to the right) whilst surrounded by trees, joggers and pond life which can provide a tranquil respite from the hustle and bustle of taxi horns and shoppers – though this is pretty limited in Boston anyway. However I preferred walking over the Harvard Bridge, because you then end up distancing yourself from the skyline and therefore obtaining a much better perspective of the stunningly integrated architecture. The river itself happened to be partially frozen in spectacular curvatures, which gave a beautiful juxtaposition between the white solidity of the ice and the darker recesses of the flowing river. (See first picture). And it was this monochrome polarity that inspired the mainly black and white photographs I took of the city.

View from Bunker Hill

View from Bunker Hill Monument

Equally impressive – though perhaps harder to achieve – were the views from the top of the Bunker Hill Monument. You have to travel over to Charlestown, which felt more like the sleepy, rural America of the Mid-West and of classic road trip movies, and then up 294 steps. However, it is free (for the view and the workout), and the end result is pretty rewarding. It’s never until you’re elevated above the ground that you realise the expansiveness of the city you’re in and how dense it is. Boston is a strange, but equally attractive, mix of futuristic contemporary architecture with sleek glass exteriors and older architectural styles (definite Georgian and Gothic influences), using red-brick facades and punctuated by columns, domes and lots of stairs.

Other architectural styles present in Boston – which create a lively and sometimes incongruous panorama – include Art Deco, (Paramount theatre), Modernism (John Hancock Tower), and the bizarre postmodern design of the MIT campus…

 paramount   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA   MIT   MIT2   North End

Forgive me for lapsing into a bit of motherly-advice, but definitely pack comfortable shoes. Boston is a city that you can easily navigate via foot and it’s the best way to stare up to the skies and absorb your surroundings. 

Shopping

Coming from a person who tends to buy most of their clothes online and finds the process of trying on garments in a boxy room with unflattering lighting both tedious and bothersome, you should take this advice VERY SERIOUSLY. Bring a bit of spending money with you AND some spare suitcase space, because American retailers ARE cheaper and you can get some great finds for a fraction of the price. Sorry for the over-zealous and liberal use of capital letters, but I had to get my point across. American shop assistants are also incredibly friendly and operate like wind-up merchants or the ‘Woody’ Toy Story doll spouting lines on repeat such as ‘How’s it going?’, ‘That is SO cute’, ‘Can I help you with anything at all’, or ‘This would look FABULOUS on you’. At first my aloof and taciturn British self couldn’t handle such unbridled and enthusiastic communication, but you gradually come to embrace it. I was practically BFF’s with a waiter upon my second visit to one particular bookshop.

The ‘Everything is Cheaper’ rule doesn’t just apply to clothes of course. As a literary soul and part-time paperback addict I also splurged on several books (Brattle Street Bookstore and the Raven Bookstore are secondhand favourites, rammed full of romantically antique and rifled through copies of fiction fabulousness). For this kind of a habit though you might need a whole new suitcase; I bought 9 books and was on the verge of a meltdown after repacking my case 4 times to try and fit them all in.

shopping-style-vintage-sowa-vintage-marketThe main shopping district in Boston is Back Bay, with Boylston and Newbury street their version of London’s Oxford. However if you’re looking for a retail experience that doesn’t involve H+M, Urban Outfitters and a Starbucks on every corner, then venturing further out may be required. On our last day in Boston we strolled into South End where a weekly Vintage Market is held. It’s in this strange hermetically sealed enclave, with a boardwalk of boutique shops selling jewelry, hats, beads and fabric, as well as art galleries and furniture stores. At the end is an abandoned warehouse type building where sellers of all things retro gather to entice the nostalgically-inclined. It was a haven. They had pretty much everything from typewriters, cameras and copies of LIFE magazine to suitcases, coats and an enviable range of knitwear. I ended up purchasing some cute $1 postcards (I remind you, this was on the last day and I had very literally taken my advice about bringing some spending money and spending it.) Some of them had actual messages on the back, whilst most just provided an insight into how Boston and America in general used to look. I’ve scanned a couple of the postcards below… The best part of the vintage market experience however was this hilariously entertaining and effervescent black man whom seemed to work there, or was otherwise just wandering about with the sole purpose of making people laugh. Upon entering the warehouse his little face popped into the window of the door we were attempting (and failing) to enter, causing us to scream girlishly. He then reassured us we needn’t be scared, ‘it was only a black man’. Ha. Of course we laughed awkwardly and made sheepish remarks, but to me he summed up the friendliness of the people in Boston. People are not only willing to converse, but seemingly want to. I had a great little chat with a woman whilst watching ‘The Princess Bride’ about how much Claire Underwood has changed. Buttercup got mean!

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Eating

Bring comfy shoes, bring money, but most of all, bring your appetite and do away with any guilt you have about eating more than one indulgent dish in a day.

coffee$ –  We frequented this friendly Irish pub ‘JJ Foleys’ which did standard American food (pizza, burgers, clam chowder, Guinness stew) but in a chilled out and friendly environment. We also came across a glorious coffee-shop-cum-book-store on Newbury Street that ensconces you in volumes of literature as you sip refill house coffee for $1.95. Even better they play movie classics such as ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and ‘The Princess Bride’ in the background. And even better than that, the menu is amazing. It offers healthier brunch cuisine, with breakfast burritos (avocados, scrambled eggs, mushrooms), fresh fruit and pancakes, alongside soups, quesadillas, tortillas and a variety of puddings. Tuck in.

Another treasure trove of a find was Grendel’s Den near Harvard Square, Cambridge. It caters mainly to the students of the area and does half-price meal deals everyday between 5-7pm. It’s got quite a quaint, cosy, hippie vibe and sort of looks like you wandered into someone’s dining room (in a good way). The staff were very friendly and the cider was delicious. You have to stroll up a few side streets to find it, but it’s well worth scouting out.

$$ – House of Siam did amazing Thai food, which we experienced in true American style by ordering take-out and slobbing about in our pajamas. (A day of walking and book-shpizzaopping can really take it out of you!) We also found this delightfully rustic Italian restaurant called ‘Antico Forno’ in North End (Boston’s Little Italy) which does decent sized pizzas for under $10.

$$$ – Our Saturday night treat was a visit to ‘Stephi’s on Tremont‘, an upmarket American bistro place which had a bustling atmosphere and cocktail bar. It’s menu combined contemporary cuisine with classic comfort-f0od favourites such as ‘Mac and Cheese’. It was definitely on the pricier side, with about $17 your average price for an entree, $9 for a glass of wine and $10 for a pudding, but as a one-off I would definitely recommend. pizza place

la burdickWe also visited ‘L.A. Burdick‘, a gourmet chocolate shop, a bit like ‘Thornton’s but with a cafe attached. Their cake slices are absolutely divine and dainty enough to not make you feel like that fat kid and the gateau in ‘Matilda’ .

Other recommendations: Sonsie, Stephanie’s and Boloco and anywhere that does cheesecake.

 

Thrills

Boston certainly isn’t the ‘Big Apple’ in terms of glitz and glamour, and in fact, most residents resent the comparison. However, something that is fantastically electrifying is the experience of witnessing a baseball game at Fenway Park. This time I went before the season begins, but upon my last visit was fortunate enough to watch the Red Sox play two home games, one against the Indians and the other against the Yankees. Baseball doesn’t reward fidgets, the easily distracted, or those not interested in sport. It’s a slow-burning game of tactics and often a frustrating one. Why on earth have you put this in the ‘thrills’ section I hear you cry?! But once you get into it, the atmosphere at the games is unlike anything I’ve experienced. Between each inning there’s a giant crowd sing-song or Mexican wave, and at the end of the 9th inning at Red Sox home games everyone stands up and belts out ‘Sweet Caroline’. Plus if the Red Sox happen to win, the crowd go absolutely wild. Like batshit crazy mental. In the most endearing way possible. It’s bonkers and a little bit scary, but simultaneously wonderful. And if you actually follow the game at the same time, then even better. Just for god’s sake don’t ask if it’s like rounders.

Chills

Walking alongside Boston Harbour (despite the ferocious wind) made for a glorious sunny morning. You can explore Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market and then cross the road for resplendent views across the ocean. In the summer (when I went last time), the Boston Harbour Hotel does free concerts wherein the entertainment perform on a stage-slash-jetty on the ACTUAL water. You have to book in advance to get a table but once that’s sorted, it’s smooth sailing. (I can only apologise).

There are also a plethora of reasonably priced yoga or pilates classes throughout the city. The Back Bay Yoga studio does $5 community classes that run for an hour and a half and you can just drop into. So if sight-seeing gets a bit strenuous, go and stretch it out.

Culture

There’s more culture in Boston than you can shake a stick at. Being a fairly academic city, with a college on almost every block (forgive the hyperbole), there’s also a great cultural scene for students. The Museum of Fine Arts and Institute of Contemporary Art are free for certain hours during the week, whilst theatrical shows and improv comedy sometimes do student prices.

Our burst of culture came in the form of a trip to ‘Kendall Square Cinema’, an independent cinema in Cambridge near the MIT campus which shows art-house or quirky films. We saw ‘Her’, the latest Spike Jonze and Joaquin Phoenix film about dating in the technological age. Visit my other blog  for a review coming soon!

"All Terrain"There was also a small art gallery near the SoWa vintage market that specialised in Cuban paintings called ‘Galleria Cubana’. At the time they were showcasing the work of Aneet R. Fontes, who depicts the urban landscape of Havana in vividly photographic style using acrylics on canvas.

If that doesn’t satiate your cultural cravings, there are plenty of others art galleries, museums and events going-on throughout the year to explore. The Harvard Bookstore does literary talks and philosophical evenings for instance, and quite a few places I spotted do ‘live jazz’ nights, so it’s definitely worth planning ahead of your trip to see what’s happening!

Random

There are lots of statues, hidden enclaves and enchanting little sidewalks to appease keen photographers and explorers alike. I’d definitely recommend walking through Beacon Hill and Boston Common. Here a few final random photographs that summarise just some of what I saw strolling through this magnificent city.

dog Rust 2 seal Staircase face buoys dog tags USS Constitution

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Review: 12 Years a Slave

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DIR. Steve McQueen. STARRING. Chwietel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson

 

Steve McQueen is a filmmaker who, in a short space of time, has cemented himself as possessing deft, controversial and thought-provoking talent. With films varying from the IRA, sex addiction and now the slave trade, there seems to be little limit to his cinematic eye. And with 12 Years a Slave he once again proves why he is one to watch.  Not that you imagine he chose such a film to prove anything at all.

There are some images throughout the history of cinema that upon witnessing stay with you forever. The girl in the red dress in Schindler’s List, the outstretched arms epitomising an unlikely friendship in E.T. and now that of a young African-American girl on a slave plantation being stripped and then severely and repeatedly whipped until her skin is in shreds. 12 Years a Slave does not promise to give you a representation of American history that will be easily digestible, or in fact especially watchable. McQueen’s camera is relentlessly unflinching. But for a subject matter that should never be ignored, it seems that is exactly the point.

12 Years is also intelligent in navigating some of the more ignorant and blasé generalisations that accompany this dark recess of a bygone era. Solomon Northrup is not a man born into slavery, nor shipped over from an indigenous land fit for the purpose of hard labour; he was unscrupulously duped, drugged and yanked from a life of decency, honour and family, awaking to find himself in chains and his existence forever altered. In telling the story of this particular man, 12 Years debunks the ridiculous notion that the slaves were there for a reason (illuminated in his first experience of cotton-picking, which he simply cannot get the hang of) and further drives home the basic truth that no man or woman ought to have been subjected to such delusions of racial superiority, especially not one that had hitherto shared the right of freedom and equality. The injustice is immediately, and heart-breakingly palpable.

The visceral brutality that endures throughout the film is hard-to-watch, but when matched with moments of ephemerality or brief respite (a letter disintegrated to embers, the rotating motion of a boat udder, a gifted violin, and silhouetted trees against the backdrop of a sunset), it creates a world punctuated by cruelty, but perpetuated by hope. Such is the strength of the human spirit.

Arguments have been put forward for the utilisation of shameless shock tactics, or a sensationalised portrayal. But far from being overblown, 12 Years a Slave infuses moments of sadness, of resignation, of helplessness with quiet power. McQueen succeeds in depicting both the degrading physical effects of slavery and its cruel, dehumanising, psychological impact (referring to Solomon as Platt, telling handmaid Eliza it won’t be long before her children are forgotten, slapping the naked bodies of slaves as if meat in a factory), whilst Solomon’s leaving Patsy behind despite her desperate pleading or his acquiescence to being a slave whilst singing ‘Roll Jordan Roll’ are further examples of this muted approach.

Solomon’s near-hanging is exacerbated by the restrain the camera shows. He is depicted in the distance, whilst the other slaves continue with their day-to-day tasks, all the while the diegetic sound emphasising his gagging sounds. McQueen does not strive for close-ups nor extract emotion forcibly, or unnecessarily, the material is enough by itself. Instead, he immerses himself in the landscape, the repetition of punishment and almost how easily it occurs. Solomon’s hanging is treated by the other slaves as if it is the most normal thing in the world, and most poignantly, you expect for them it really was.

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The film also manages to depict the varying scale of those involved in slavery; from power-hungry plantation sidekicks seeking thrills from kicking those whilst they’re down, (a sadistic Paul Dano – another string to his bow of creepy characters), full-throttle abolitionists (Brad Pitt to the rescue),  reluctant plantation owners – affording tempered kindness but not real help (Benedict Cumberbatch), to the down-right vicious, paranoid and quite frankly insane (Michael Fassbender, on formidable and snarling form). Sarah Paulson (who, after Django Unchained, may have have found her niche as a plantation mistress) is also chilling as Fassbender’s wife, competing for his affections and no less profligate with her issuances of punishment. But without ever seeming to broad-brush or stereotype those involved in this painful history.

ImageBut the two actors who most poignantly inhabit their roles are Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o as Solomon and Patsey. Ejiofor projects a quiet resilience and determination, consistently resisting his newfound position as a lower echelon of society and attempting to hold onto his right to be called a man, rather than a slave. It is a committed and exquisite performance, shaded by both tenderness and rage and Solomon becomes a character you give yourself over to rooting for. So much so that watching the film can become an exhaustive process. Equally affecting and truly unbelievable for a big-screen debut is the talent of Nyong’o who pours everything she has, physically and emotionally into this difficult role. She never over-sentimentalises the performance, and Patsey becomes a character whom measures the diverse abuse slaves underwent, but who endures it with a strength and dignity.

For those that are shocked and find it uncomfortable, I would imagine Steve McQueen is resolutely triumphant in being able to elicit this emotion. Surely that is exactly the point of this film: to make us squirm and flinch and want to turn away, but ultimately confront a time when humanity was allowed to commit such atrocities and crimes against justice.  This is not horrible, or disgusting, but a harrowing and sobering experience – one should not be repelled but compelled.

 The final scene is perhaps the most emotive and tragic, when the accumulated years of Solomon’s suffering manifest themselves tangibly – in the maturation of his two children. Suddenly, when presented with two adults we are made painfully aware of just how long he has undergone these crimes against humanity and what he’s lost. His asking for forgiveness makes it all the worse.

This is not simply a regurgitation of stories already told, but a necessary reappraisal of a history and a cultural memory we must never forget. 12 Years a Slave brings these experiences to the fore with illuminating and affecting visceral power. For me, 12 Years was an immersive and indelible cinematic experience and one that I urge everyone to see.

 

 

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

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DIR. Wes Anderson. STARRING: Pretty much everyone, ever. Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan, Tom Wilkinson, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Lea Seydoux, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Mathieu Amalric, other people.

Wes Anderson films are an acquired taste – frequently kitsch, long and frustratingly quirky – you are either a devoted fan, or perpetually bemused.

The Grand Budapest Hotel situates itself very comfortably amongst Anderson’s oeuvre and will no doubt be equally divisive. But for those of you whom are fans of the indulgent director’s sense of spectacle and folly are in for a TREAT.

In the prelude to the prelude, a young girl pays respects to the statue of a renowned author, whom we are then introduced to in living form as Tom Wilkinson, and then again in his younger self as Jude Law. The ever-complex structure that is Anderson’s storytelling is in full swing here, and the story within a story (within a story?) allows for nostalgia and hyperbole to manifest in seductive form. Jude Law meets Zero Moustafa (F Murray Abraham and Tony Revolori) once the hotel is well past its peak and resembles The Shining in its eerie sparseness of guests and gaudy decor. It is through the eyes of Moustafa as told by the Author that we meet the indomitable and utterly fantastic Gustave H; a man as absurd as he is debonair.

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Rewind to the 1930s and to the hotel’s golden era with its luxuriously pastel exterior and opulent interiors reflective of the Belle Epoque. And master of it all is Ralph Fiennes whom looks like he’s having the time of his life as cavorting concierge Gustave. Moustachioed, meticulous and occasionally potty-mouthed, he careens about the hotel with authority, swagger and purpose. He is the life and soul of the hotel, servicing his guests in more ways than one – with particular interest in the elder, richer clientele (“when you’re young it’s all fillet steak, and then you have to move on to cheaper cuts”, Gustave says of his taste for vintage women, in brilliantly cutting style). He adopts Moustafa, a teenage lobby boy orphaned by war as his protégé and proceeds to instruct him on being the perfect concierge – anticipating needs, being at once invisible and ever available and able to fulfill any task at the drop of a hat.

The real plot begins with a freakishly aged Tilda Swinton as Madame D (“dynamite in the sack”), who turns out to be Gustave’s lover and upon her death bestows him with ‘Boy with Apple’ a prized painting among her eccentric money-grabbing family, at the centre of whom is her sinister son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). After being accused of her murder, Gustave, employing the help of Moustafa, sets out to clear his name. So begins the action/heist element of Grand Budapest, replete with art theft, a prison escape, cable-car rides, a sledge-chase, a farcical shoot-out and a flying cat.

It is a buddy-caper film and period drama rolled into one, though genre is almost pointless to label a Wes Anderson film.

His directorial style is arguably a genre all by itself. Anderson after all is an unbridled, and unrepentant aesthete who revels in that which is sumptuous and styled to perfection.

One just has to look at the flawless intricacy of the pastries Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) bakes, replete with individual wrapping and a bow; or the vividly purple suits worn by Gustave, precisely tailored and as straight as the lines in which Anderson’s camera moves. Every frame is tinged with his unique perspective and eye for detail.

Reminiscent of Georges Melies in its technical wizardry and elaborate set constructions, Anderson never shies away from artifice and the scenery often looks more picture-postcard than real. A choice no doubt intentional. A critique often leveled at the director is that his aesthetic is too calculated, fussy and pristine. Everything is exacting and no room is left for spontaneity. But I would argue that this in fact channels the operation of a hotel immeasurably. Hotels are strange liminal spaces, where one often goes to escape reality and to exchange the quotidian with grandeur and excess. There are people to cater to every need, beds flawlessly made and endless, uncluttered corridors. It is a calculated, seamless and mechanical operation. Both the hotel and Anderson’s direction.

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And the richness of dialogue, scenery and detail seems testament to Anderson’s love for, and mourning, of the decadent fin-de-siecle period. This is after all a film lamenting the decline of civilisation; for all its wit and joviality, it is laced with startling violence – and sadness. There are equal parts magic and melancholy.

Every facet of this film is one drenched in resplendence. The musical score composed by Alexandre Desplat is quaint, ethereal and charming with plinking piano notes and playful strumming. There are clear folk music influences – said to be Russian – but with an air of percussive exoticism. It feels other-worldly, opulent and slightly melancholic for a bygone era where Viennese waltzing was something everyone knew how to do; the score thus complements the elegiac and idiosyncratic atmosphere of the film perfectly.

The costuming is also impeccable, from the aforementioned violet concierge suits to the expertly groomed moustaches. Lea Seydoux’s French maid’s outfit, Willem Dafoe’s floor-length leather trench and Tilda Swinton’s fur-lined, red velveteen coat are particular highlights among a plethora of well-dressed characters.

And finally the performances are a treasure trove of parody, absurdity and perfect comic-timing. Newcomer Tony Revolori holds his own magnificently against Ralph Fiennes, with whom he shares most of his screen time. It would be easy to disappear into the background when matched with Fiennes’ hysterical, career curve-balling performance, but the young Moustafa is likeable, sympathetic and very watchable, especially when chastising Gustave for flirting with his fiancée Agatha.

ImageImageThere are more cameos than you can shake a stick at, with Anderson’s cohort of returning actors growing larger. You could argue that such small roles given to such big talent is a waste, and perhaps a distraction (see Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave for how NOT to cast a star in a film), however Anderson is very wise in his casting and if anything the variety of cameos add to magic and chaos of the film. Particularly notable are Edward Norton as a bumbling police officer channelling Inspector Clouseau, Harvey Keitel as the tattooed convict and fellow prison escapee and a quite frankly terrifying Willem Dafoe as Dmitri’s hitman of sort. That is of course, not to take away from the several other exquisitely attuned performances throughout the film, with every actor immersing themselves in the characters and the world it’s easy to forget whom they are. Yes Tilda, I’m looking at you.

Of course, the star of the show is the surprisingly uproarious Mr. Fiennes. It’s rare to see him in a comic role, with his CV rather generous with its uber-villains, tortured lovers and po-faced parts. Of course, In Bruges and Skyfall, if not just his immense talent, proved he could handle deadpan humour. But I wonder if anyone knew he could do it so well. He is a sheer delight to watch in action, and delivers each with line with eloquence, panache and conviction, even when – or especially when – peppered with ‘darlings’. Every gesture, curled lip or disgruntled expression is a wonder to behold and quite frankly watching Ralph Fiennes do high-camp will never fail to be entertaining.

Some have labelled The Grand Budapest Hotel a masterpiece, and I would be inclined to agree. This is a film as elaborate, delicious and multi-layered as the cakes Agatha slaves over at Mendl’s and as exhilarating as the ridiculous sledge-chase that initiates a fabulous confrontation between Fiennes and Dafoe. The immaculate facade that is Zubrowska, or the hotel itself may create a fictional world, but it is not an inaccessible one. For all the callousness and greed, there is kindness and tenderness and perhaps most of all beauty.

Check in, stay awhile and indulge in unadulterated chaotic splendour.