Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush) leads a deliberately structured life. He’s a high-end art auctioneer with an acid tongue, a sharp eye for a diamond in the rough and a conscience that allows him to casually swindle clients who don’t know as much as he does. With the help of an old friend and partner in crime Billy (Donald Sutherland), he routinely scams the auction houses by having Billy bid on works he has deliberately undervalued. He pays Billy a fee and takes home the masterpieces — all portraits of women — which he hangs in a secret room and savors with intense if solitary pleasure.
But Virgil — Mr. Oldman to you, the chilly, formal man would say — is about to have his life upended in the best cinematic tradition in Giuseppe Tornatore’s deliberate and quietly absorbing new film. A reclusive heiress calls Virgil’s office and asks him for an appraisal of her parents’ villa. Ever vigilant for opportunities to add to his collection, Virgil accepts, though he’s irritated by her eccentric manner. As time goes by, the chandeliers and furniture and paintings are sorted and catalogued, but the elusive young woman keeps coming up with reasons she can’t meet him in person. At first, Virgil is annoyed. But as any lonely man might do in his position, he begins to grow obsessed with her.
Screenwriter/director Tornatore is best known for his nostalgic Cinema Paradiso, which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1990. But The Best Offer is completely different in style and tone; it’s dark instead of light, a psychological thriller of sorts, only with Virgil’s heart and orderly life in peril instead of his life. This devious man, who owns dozens of pairs of gloves and wears them to avoid having to actually touch other people, finds himself drawn to the mysterious heiress, Claire (Sylvia Hoeks), even though she refuses to reveal herself to him.
Tornatore pays great attention to detail, from the engraving on the champagne glasses at Virgil’s favorite restaurant to the precision with which he hangs his paintings, then sits in a gleaming white chair to admire them. Small pieces of the puzzle pay off handsomely, too, such as the small woman who sits at the window of a bar near Claire’s crumbling estate, steadily reciting numbers.
Rush (The King’s Speech) is terrific, naturally, as the stiff Virgil starts to unthaw and actually wonder, even care, about things beyond his collection. He hasn’t quite given up his old habits — he asks a young engineer acquaintance (Jim Sturgess) to help him reassemble an unusual gadget he found amid Claire’s possessions, and you aren’t fully sure he intends to be honest with her about its value. But then Tornatore never paints Virgil’s transformation or Claire’s malady in an unquestionably straightforward light. Love is delicate and tricky, The Best Offer tells us. Anything can be forged, and opening up for another human being can be a dangerous business.
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Jim Sturgess, Sylvia Hoeks, Donald Sutherland.
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore.
Screenwriter: Giuseppe Tornatore.
Producers: Isabella Cocuzza, Arturo Paglia.
An IFC release. Running time: 131 minutes. Some sexuality and graphic nudity. Playing in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Arts Cinema.