The best this movie has to offer is Geoffrey Rush, giving a subtly layered performance and elevating an otherwise classic (and classy) heist material to the heights of tragedy – and redemption. At the beginning, Virgil Oldman is seen as a cold fish, an auctioneer at the peak of his worldwide reputation. His refined eye can’t be fooled as he scrutinises works of art he manipulates with gloved hands, gloves of which he has dozens of pairs meticulously aligned in a special cabinet. He does not even take them off when he dines at his favourite restaurant, where he has his table and his monogrammed tableware. He is, at his core, disgusted by other people and refuses to touch them or their possessions.
But Virgil has a secret: for years, he has been under-evaluating arcane paintings of great value, expertising them as forgeries on which his partner in crime and failed painter Billy (Donald Sutherland, succulent as usual) successfully bids at auctions. Billy gets a cut of the profit and Virgil hangs his loots in his secret vault, where he can gaze at them in solitude. From the size of the vault and the number of paintings, one can say that this stunt has been lasting for quite some years.
Claire Ibbetson, a mysterious woman (isn’t there always one?) calls Virgil and ask him for an evaluation of a big collection of furniture and paintings. Reluctant at first, he finally agrees to meet her but she misses their first appointment, then another. He finally gets to see the collection but not its owner whom, her servant informs him, nobody has seen for twelve years as she suffers from agoraphobia and only leaves her panic room when everyone else has left the villa. She seems to be quite the bipolar recluse, with violent mood swings which only amplify his curiosity.
Said curiosity is heightened again when he finds a piece of machinery in the villa’s basement. After being expertised by a genius mechanics with whom he’s in regular contact, the fragment reveals to be part of a 18th century automaton built by Vaucanson (he of the mechanical duck fame), which value if completed would be inestimable. A game of cat and mouse starts between the auctioneer and the potential seller, to whom he hides his discovery. He spies on her and finally see her 50′ after the film started, and talk to her only well into the second hour.
Time and again he returns to the villa, grabbing here and there pieces of the automaton, which builds in parallel with the tension between the elusive Claire and himself. His initial mistrust is mollified by her constant yo-yoing between fear and attraction. They quarrel like lovers well before becoming so. Anything and its contrary, under a constant suspicion of treachery and betrayal. Scopophilia plays an important role in their relationship; he buys her couture dresses and jewels, in the hope she will get better and can get rid of her phobia and join him for a trip abroad.
One won’t be so cruel as to spoil the ending of a movie, which is predictable but elegantly put together, with the help of a paralysed midget gifted with eidetic memory. Virgil loses some, wins some and, at the time of the majestic last scene in a Prague restaurant, is a changed man. Meticulously filmed, well played by all involved and benefiting from an Ennio Morricone score, The Best Offer is a quiet thriller, almost perfect but for a few inconsistencies, fortunately appearing early enough in the picture not to impair the final momentum. There is always something authentic in a forgery, and everything can be faked but what one is feeling towards oneself. Whatever the distance self-inflicted between one and the rest of the world, one remains part of it, for better or for worse. A brilliant machine with a telltale heart, The Best Offer deserves its title.