It’s rare to see a feature film that seriously explores agoraphobia.
Even rarer is a film that explores agoraphobia and the world of fine art wheeling and dealing. Rarer still is a film that explores agoraphobia in the world of fine art wheeling and dealing, features Geoffrey Rush spinning upside-down in a strange circular contraption and more than one scene in which characters observe each other by peeking from behind sculptures, lingering with the words “sex predator” practically stamped across their foreheads.
Add a Hugo-esque robot, a dwarf with a perfect mathematical memory and a thick air of moody, gloomy, swooning romance and you get one (im)perfect storm of cinematic oddity c/o Italian writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore, best known for his charming cinematic love letter Cinema Paradiso (1988).
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In The Best Offer Rush is perfectly cast as Virgil Oldman, an obnoxious antiques auctioneer riding a long and illustrious swindling sting with co-conspirator Billy (Donald Sutherland). They team up to save on expensive art buys at the expense of suckers who think they’re bidding on fake art when they’re actually staking cash on the real deal. It’s complicated (sort of) but these guys have, shall we say, got it down to a fine art.
When Oldman receives a call from an agoraphobic young heiress stocked to the gills with prize possessions — the kind this sucker for the posh and pretentious salivates over — he is naturally intrigued. A physically separated but emotionally sticky relationship between them ensues.
That thespian voice, ruffled face and hoity toity demeanour suit Rush’s art snob shtick to a tee. It also gives The Best Offer a weeping, aching gravitas Tornatore does not seem to know quite how to deal with. There’s an entrenched sadness about The Best Offer, a sense even lighter moments are tainted by a corrosive kind of despair niggling at the heart of it.
It’s hard to invest meaningfully with any of the characters. Oldman — while vividly embodied by Rush and that all-powerful crinkly forehead, a landscape of thespian protocol and rumpled, dour demeanour — is a stiff plank of wood, difficult to engage with on a human level. Clare, emotion and fear-charged, is locked away for a large portion of the running time. Her reveal as a character is gradual and her personality distant, a lonely planet around which Oldman’s pent-up lust orbits.
The correlation between art fakery and romantic fraudulence is a tantalising bow to draw but Tornatore’s focus lies with more conventional deceptions. Scored by the legendary Ennio Morricone and shot with a dripping sense of grandeur by Fabio Zamarion, there’s no question The Best Offer is aesthetically the real deal: a classy frame for a creepy, patchy and difficult to appreciate painting.