Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush) is a misogynist auctioneer and art collector who puts his friend Billy (Donald Sutherland) in charge of purchasing works of art undisturbed. One day he receives a call from Claire (Sylvia Hoeks), heiress to a sprawling villa full of paintings and antiques. She convinces him to evaluate her late parents’ property. From here begins a story full of passion and intrigue. 

A fine portrait of art and obsession.

The Best Offer, the new English-language mystery/drama from veteran Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso), is baroque, unapologetically odd, and gorgeous to look at. Shot on locations in Italy, Venice and Prague, in grand houses and villas, the film’s visual style is like Merchant Ivory crossed with a Christie’s catalogue; it’s all chocolate-y browns and the odd redeeming gold and silvery highlight.

Geoffrey Rush is really terrific

The film’s hero is a high-line auctioneer who is steeped in the smoky decayed beauty of the past. His name is Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush) and he prides himself on knowing all there is to know about art: its authentic obscure masterpieces and especially its dazzling forgeries. When he stalks the villas here in order to price their riches, Tornatore has Oldman appear like he’s some Dark Prince, curator of lost kingdoms, its many secrets known only to him. Still, this strange reclusive man, who looks more like a butler than any kind of player, who dyes his hair black – perhaps in order to match his suit and gloves – and refuses to use a mobile phone, knows, we quickly learn, nothing of life. Tornatore emphasises the sense that this guy is a man out of time by providing Oldman with an epigrammatic verbal style that is quaint, dated and falsely wise: 'Talking to people is extremely perilous," he offers a client by way of advice, and later, fatally admits, 'I prefer to remain in the shadows." Oldman, then, is a man who has lived a life of suspicion and neglect. But in purely material terms, he has something worth hiding. For years, he’s been scamming auctions with an art buyer/artist called Billy, played by Donald Sutherland at his most sinisterly avuncular. Oldman deliberately conceals the real value of a piece; Billy always makes the best offer. The pair share the proceeds. Oldman keeps this booty in a concealed room in his luxe apartment. But there is something significant about this collection besides the monetary value: each is a famous portrait of a woman and they are indeed the only 'women’ in Oldman’s world. (When any female turns up, he can barely manage eye contact.)

Then along comes a new client who lives in a spooky villa. She is young, inexperienced and suffers from agoraphobia. Claire (Sylvia Hoeks) asks Oldman to value her inheritance, a deceased estate. It transpires that she is sitting on a fortune. The transaction is fraught. Aside from the fact that Oldman hates talking on the telephone, there’s nothing about Claire that is encouraging: by turns naïve and 'overly emotional’, she aggravates each negotiation in the process with her private admissions, her capriciousness and the fact that she will not meet Oldman in person. Before you can say 'sold’, Oldman is hooked into this emotional push/pull. Of course, what arouses his curiosity is the fact that her every call seems to have a therapeutic effect that runs both ways: he gets off on the idea that someone seems to need him, and he’s excited by his own new found feeling of vulnerability.

Tornatore is careful to mask The Best Offer from the hard logic of the 'real’ world. The architecture screams 'Europe’ but the actual setting is anonymous; all the better to ascribe a fable-like quality to this story which – with its gloomy mansions, secret chambers, stormy nights, tragic heroine, tortured hero, and 'rescue’ plot – seems conceived as an update of a kind of 18th century gothic romantic fiction.

The action is structured as a chamber piece; a series of one-on-one dialogues where behind every revealing line lay yet another mystery. The cast of characters add to this hall of mirrors atmosphere; each one of them carries some quirk of personality and talent, like the Little Person (Kiruna Stamell) with a phenomenal memory who is on hand to provide some crucial clues when the plot gets tangled... Then there’s Robert (Jim Sturgess), a prodigiously gifted mechanic and 'lady killer’ who builds an automaton from scraps that Oldman has grifted from Claire’s villa. Worldly and bold, Robert offers Oldman sage advice on how best to woo the frightened Claire.

To offer too much more of the plot would get into spoiler territory, but let’s just say that Geoffrey Rush is really terrific. Tornatore asks a lot of him here. How many actors could get away with a part that calls upon the performer to recite pages of dialogue into empty space where they end up talking to walls?

To put it kindly, The Best Offer is silly. If movies were censored for plausibility, it would be banned outright and it doesn’t help that the plot grafts Vertigo to Monsieur Hire period Patrice Leconte. Still, the film, so full of intrigue and vivid details, has a charm that’s beguiling. Like his fine thriller from 1995, A Pure Formality, The Best Offer is about building a hermetically sealed screen universe, where mood and the fevered obsessions of the characters take primacy over all other considerations. Part of what makes Tornatore’s sensibility so seductive is precisely this lack of concern for the mundane. But I think what I like best about Tornatore is his tone; he adopts a soulful attitude to the characters and their self-made crises that’s rather touching.

It’s understood that Oldman is a virtual prisoner; there’s a desire to see him breakout. Once he falls for Claire, he begins to strip away his affectations and what emerges is a rather kind man willing to take real risks but without learning the survivalists trick of cynicism. In a world of fakers and forgeries, this fraud of a man turns out to be the real thing, but like all genuine romantics, that means he’s bound to get hurt. There’s a real life force in all of that. And that is sweet and, funnily enough, true to life, whatever you might think that’s worth.


The Best Offer

Wednesday 10 June, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies (repeats Thursday 11th, 3:35am & Friday 12th, 1:10am)
Now streaming at SBS On Demand

Italy, 2013
Genre: Drama, Romance
Language: English, Italian
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Donald Sutherland, Jim Sturgess, Sylvia Hoeks
What's it about?
Virgil Oldman (Rush) is a misogynist auctioneer and art collector who puts his friend Billy (Sutherland) in charge of purchasing works of art undisturbed. One day he receives a call from Claire (Hoeks), heiress to a sprawling villa full of paintings and antiques. She convinces him to evaluate her late parents’ property. From here begins a story full of passion and intrigue. From Giuseppe Tornatore, director of Cinema Paradiso.

The Best Offer: Giuseppe Tornatore interview
The Best Offer: Geoffrey Rush interview

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