Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush) is an expert on fine art. With a glance or a touch, he can tell if a piece is authentic or forged, roughly how old it is, and probably name the artist. He is also a lonely, isolated man who rarely takes off his gloves, even inside a fine restaurant, and has no women in his life except the numerous priceless paintings that he and his friend Billy (Donald Sutherland) have conspired to pick up at Virgil's high-class auctions. On his birthday, superstition inspires Virgil to pick up the telephone, and he is greeted by the voice of Claire Ibbetson (Sylvia Hoeks), a slightly nervous woman who begs Virgil to take over the valuation and auction of her parents' estate. After a number of canceled meetings, Claire reveals that she suffers from extreme agoraphobia, and has not left her house in over 10 years. As Virgil appraises the estate, he and Claire form a connection, and both parties must confront their own anxieties about letting other people in.
In keeping with its protagonist, The Best Offer is a sumptuous, classy film, rich with detail and texture. From the precision of his auctions down to the perfect arrangement of the meals he eats, Virgil lives a life within parameters he can control, and has fine-tuned his skills within those parameters. In the very first scene, he spots what looks like a chunk of wood on the ground of a basement, and with one sniff he correctly identifies it as a painting, dating back to the 18th century. Once Claire has hired him, he walks through the mansion she's inherited, with rooms filled with art from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, and one senses the gears turning in his head with every glance. In the basement, he spots a strange device made out of gears and picks it up, not because of what it is, but that the rust on the piece is forming on the wrong side.
Claire, however, throws Virgil's life out of balance. Virgil is so surrounded by his own protection that even in his empty home, which has never had visitors beyond a housewarming party, he secludes himself in a special chamber where he stores all the paintings that Billy helps him buy (a secret door resides behind a closet full of Virgil's gloves, which is a nice touch). Yet, when he sees the same pattern of isolation in Claire, he can't resist the urge to break her of that habit, to lure her out of her house. At first, it's simply the mystery of working for a client he's never seen, but eventually the need to know her transforms into real affection. Rush is exquisite, playing scenes with a childlike curiosity that helps the movie along even when his character occasionally acts irrationally, blowing up in ways that feel more suited to Claire than himself. As Virgil's confidence grows, Rush's emotional palette expands too, and his warmth and liveliness are palpable.
Tornatore is very careful in the development of a relationship between Virgil and Claire, and is more than willing to let his characters fight to make a connection. Whether they will escalate their relationship from a friendship to a romance is not certain; all that matters is that she represents someone who genuinely piques his interest, and he's willing to let her in. Other than Billy, Virgil only has one friend in Robert (Jim Sturgess), a young mechanic who helps restore some of the items that Virgil brings by. In this case, Virgil brings the gears that he finds on the floor of Claire's basement, and the two set about re-assembling the pieces into something potentially priceless. As Virgil eases into the waters of personal relationships for the first time in ages (who knows when he befriended Billy), Robert coaches him on how to speak to other people, particularly women.
Without giving too much away -- something that would be very easy to do in the case of The Best Offer -- the film pulls its characters and storylines together, despite their seeming differences. The more the film builds toward a conclusion, the stranger it seems, which makes it all the more underwhelming when the ultimate story Tornatore is building to turns out to be so conventional. Tornatore also glosses over some of the story's fringe quirks, including the question of whether or not Virgil and Robert assembling the gears is the kind of secret that Virgil should feel more morally ambivalent about with regards to Claire's trust (an error that has to do with the author knowing more about the story's outcome than the characters involved in it). Much like Virgil himself, The Best Offer is a refined and mysterious movie. It's just a shame that like so many mysteries, the question is more intriguing than the answer.
IFC gives The Best Offer the "boxes" treatment: a series of famous faces grace the cover, arranged in a grid over black. One wishes the photo in the middle of the design took up a little more of the real estate, but the touches of golden yellow make for a nice bit of contrast. The single-disc release comes in an eco-friendly translucent Amaray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the PQ for The Best Offer is generally okay but leaves something to be desired. Colors appear in line with the director's intentions, but detail looks to be on the soft side, and compression artifacts can be spotted in dim basements and underlit rooms. When light conditions are better, the transfer looks quite nice, offering some impressive facial detail in close-ups. It's a shame, though, that such a gorgeous-looking film has not been given a better presentation (DVD only for this title).
Sound is a Dolby Digital 5.1 track which offers a bit more refined classiness than the picture. Ennio Morricone's wonderful score sounds very nice in this elegant mix, alongside the atmosphere of the various high-class locations the film takes place in. The film is reserved, without much action, but some more specific and detailed sounds come in the form of gears and barely-perceptible sound of fingers feeling the texture of centuries-old paint. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Sadly, only an original theatrical trailer is on offer here. A commentary by Tornatore and Rush would've really sweetened the package.
Although the film may ultimately disappoint, Tornatore's direction and Rush's performance are more than enough reason to give The Best Offer a shot. At the very least, it's unpredictable (until it's all too predictable), and offers a gorgeous visual catalog of art and culture. Rent it.
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