The Best Offer, a tapestry unrolled

Geoffrey Rush adds another triumph to his list with a spell-binding performance as international art dealer Virgil Oldman in The Best Offer, a film about art and life, the true and the fake.
After a lifetime of buying and selling, Virgil Oldman has amassed, by underhand means and the assistance of Billy Whistler, played by Donald Sutherland with a big white beard, a huge collection of portraits of beautiful women. Such is Oldman’s love of beauty that he cannot bring himself touch it, wearing gloves most of the day, and remaining, at the age of around sixty, a virgin.
A potential client’s agent contacts Oldman’s company, insisting on dealing with him personally. The client is a woman who is reluctant to be seen, and keeps missing appointments. Oldman is at first irritated and then intrigued, and after he finds some antique clockwork that may be exceptionally rare, he becomes obsessed. Eventually he discovers her name, Claire, and gains her confidence.
Oldman is sailing in what are, for him, uncharted waters. The rest of the film is like the missing chart slowly being unfolded, giving hints as to what is around him, but it is only at the end that Oldman finally realises where he is.
Sylvia Hoeks, coming from a solid career in the Netherlands, is bewitching as Claire, and Jim Sturgess is perfect as Robert, Oldman’s universal repair man and advisor on matters romantic. Donald Sutherland’s role, Billy Whistler, does not take up much screen time, but he is a vital cog in the mechanism. A number of faces familiar from British TV play small but vital roles, this film has been made with the utmost care by director and writer Giuseppe Tornatore, best known for Cinema Paradiso. That this is not a mere mystery or romance is plainly flagged by the names of some of the characters; Virgil Oldman is a virginal old man, Claire is far from clear, and Billy (William) Whistler is the name of famous painter James McNeill Whistler’s brother. Is Robert a robber? See the film and make your own connections.
Music by Ennio Morricone blends beautifully with the visual, as with the best film music, after the opening credits it does not intrude, but becomes a part of the tapestry.
Critical reception to The Best Offer has been sharply divided. Several prominent critics consider it a failure, but it has won a number of awards, and most reviews range from the favourable to the ecstatic. It is the kind of film that you either relate to strongly, or simply can’t see the point of. If you like films that linger in the mind, you’ll like it. If you prefer cut and dried beginning, middle, end, problem solved dramas, don’t go.

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