At 53, Austrian-German actor Christoph Waltz became an unlikely Hollywood star. After decades working in German film and television, he broke through with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Despite being an unknown stateside, despite starring opposite A-lister Brad Pitt, despite being tasked with playing a ruthless and giddily zealous Nazi, Waltz stole the spotlight, then earned his first Academy Award. In one performance, he succinctly showed what would become his signature: a unique charisma that blends a captivating mirth with an unpredictable menace. Big name directors like Roman Polanski, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Sam Mendes, and Alexander Payne clamored to work with Waltz, often having him play another fascinating fiend. Now, Waltz has perfectly cast himself in his directorial debut Georgetown.
The story begins with an unusual love triangle. Waltz stars as Ulrich Mott, a German national known in Georgetown for his decadent dinner parties, spectacular tales of intrigue, and his esteemed wife Elsa Brecht (Vanessa Redgrave). When he was a fifty-something tour guide scrambling for any position in Washington, D.C, she was the octogenarian journalist who gave him a chance, then married him, and coached him to power. They are an odd power couple, due not only to the age difference but also to how his naked ambition clashes with her casual grace. Which might be why Elsa’s grown daughter Amanda (Annette Bening) despises Ulrich, sneering at the sight of him and begging her mother to leave her garish husband and Georgetown behind. But the battle for Elsa will end abruptly, when she’s found murdered in the home she shares with Ulrich. Amanda immediately suspects him. But as investigators gather, Ulrich spins conspiracy theories, calls on powerful friends, and works frantically to keep his shady past out of the spotlight.
The news-savvy might recognize the bones of this story. Georgetown‘s opening credits note it “doesn’t claim to be the truth. Nevertheless, it is inspired by actual events.” Those actual events are the marriage of Georgetown socialites Albrecht Muthand Viola Drath, which ended in murder in 2011. Though Georgetown credits Franklin Foer’s fascinating New York Times article “The Worst Marriage in Georgetown,” the film shrugs off facts in favor of creating a narrative Waltz can really sink his teeth into. While it stays true to details like their first date at a schnitzel place, it radically shifts their ages. In the movie, Ulrich is 50 when he first asks out Elsa, who is in her 80s. In real life, Muth was a teenager when he initially tried to seduce the 60-something Drath, and he was just 26 when they got married. But to be slavish to true events, we’d lose out on watching Waltz woo Redgrave, which is an unnerving delight. His smile glints with forced bravado, her eyes twinkle with bemusement and slight skepticism. And without Waltz’s signature charm, we wouldn’t be tempted to give Ulrich the benefit of the doubt, as Elsa does.
Moreover, David Auburn’s script plays loose with the facts to create better drama. There’s greater stakes for a 50-year-old intern to make an impression on a woman like Elsa than there would be for a teenager. Desperation gives all of Ulrich’s words a whiff of smoke, of warning. But the film begins with Ulrich at the height of his power, in the midst of a victorious dinner party. Then, it slides back and forth through his timeline. Moving forward, he’ll be picked apart by the investigation. Meanwhile, flashbacks reveal the rocky path to his successes as well as the skeletons in his closet. Though Ulrich is at the center of the film, its narrative structure reflects the journey of the public defenders obliged to represent him. As he dodges their questions with enigmatic answers and blustering, we — like them — must pick through his past to make sense of what’s real and what’s bullshit. Waltz shows an eye for talent, casting Straight Outta Compton‘s Corey Hawkins as lead defense attorney beleaguered by Ulrich’s games. Hawkins’sharp eyes register frustration, shock, and abject confusion, proving not only a keen reflection of the audience trying to make sense of Ulrich, but also adding a nuanced humor to seemingly serious scenes.
Under the façade of a murder mystery, there’s a ruthlessly dry wit at play in Georgetown that caused the tension in the theater to be punctured by gasps and guffaws. In his first directorial effort, Waltz gave himself a role that plays to his strengths, allowing him to relish in a comical rascal who is as horrid as he is sickenly enticing. Then he cast two of legendary leading ladies to be his partners for scenes tense yet savagely funny. Georgetown is all about status: who has it, who wants it, and what will be done for it. As Ulrich, Waltz plays the clown with a broad grin and a playful patter. But his sycophantic attention to detail has a dark side. When the party guests are gone, the curtain has closed, and his demeanor shifts. To Amanda, his behavior is briskly bullying, hinting that he’s called her a “sour little bitch” behind her back. To Elsa, his warmth cools then grows hard as she nags him not to smoke in her house. Bening can do so much in stillness. A hard look warns that she sees through all of Ulrich’s prattle. A guttural yowl breaking forth from her pursed lips lands the trauma of Elsa’s death. And the earthy whisper of her warnings remind us of the danger in the charms of this mysterious man.
Georgetown is an exhilarating dance, where partners Waltz, Bening and Redgrave radiate with love, regret, and rage. With a steely strength and throbbing tenderness, Bening grounds the film’s drama. Waltz brings flourishes of fittingly uneasy fun. And Redgrave is the prima ballerina, spinning from one to the other and back without ever missing a step. The 82-year-old stunner brings a might and spirit to this role that is absolutely breathtaking. She refuses to let audiences write Elsa off as foolish or frail, creating a rich portrait of an old, lonely woman who is as alive as she is complicated. Redgrave presents her aging body as a sign of vulnerability as Elsa lies in bed, mourning the death of her first husband (Amanda’s father). Then she offers a girlish glee as Ulrich woos her with phone calls and promises. A firm maternal love shines when she shares scenes with Bening, a partner’s pride when Ulrich begins to ascend. Her breezy joy and ladly-like elegance are shattered by righteous rage when betrayal is unveiled. Finally, a pulse-stopping fear shines from her brilliant blue eyes as she realizes the threat that she’s let into her home. All of Redgrave’s work is radiant and underscores what was lost because so many — not just Elsa — fell for Ulrich’s charm and ignored what lurked beneath.
With Georgetown, Waltz delivers a spectacular showcase for himself, Hawkins, Bening, and Redgrave. But beneath the thrills and fun, he delivers a clear warning about the dangers of buying into charm, using his own as perfect weapon and cleverly savage messenger.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com