Ulrich Mott is a diplomat, military general, count, intelligence officer, and power broker — or so he would like you to believe. “Georgetown” details how a charlatan entirely fictionalized an impressive background to infiltrate DC society, only for the lies to catch up with him as his one ally, his well-connected and much older wife, winds up dead in their Georgetown townhouse.
Based on the real-life murder of Viola Drath by her con artist husband, as detailed in The New York Times article, “The Worst Marriage In Georgetown,” the political crime thriller is an excellent offering and an impressive directorial debut by actor Christoph Waltz.
When Mott (Waltz) arrives in D.C. at the film’s opening, he is a 50-year-old intern on Capitol Hill, giving tours to constituents when he sneaks into the White House Correspondents Dinner and meets Elsa Brecht (Vanessa Redgrave), a socialite decades his senior. They quickly marry, developing a platonic partnership more than a romance, with the pair leveraging Elsa’s contacts and Mott’s ambition to launch his career and return her to social prominence. Yet when Mott slowly discerns that he will never be taken seriously as more than a party host, he becomes desperate as cracks begin to form in his story, and marriage.
At just 90 minutes, the film’s complex story is rendered with briskness and clarity. The shorter runtime creates an urgency in the film, as each facet of the narrative is given just enough time without dragging. There was likewise a welcome lack of subplots, which created a focused through-line and allowed the audience to remain with the thrilling central story.
A nonlinear story structure is utilized to further create a sense of mystery, jumping between Mott and Elsa’s developing relationship and Mott’s trial for her murder. The timelines are interwoven in an intelligent manner, where information from one scene is not only relevant to the plot, but also the themes and character development of the next.
Despite being filmed in Toronto, the movie captures the feel of Georgetown exquisitely. Discussions of international affairs and social gatherings peppered with an almost compulsive name-dropping of influential acquaintances grounded the film in its specific world and give a distinct identity to the proceedings (the interior of Elsa’s house even looks remarkably like a Georgetown townhouse).
The satirical aspect of the film is brilliant, witnessing how powerful, important, and ostensibly intelligent people were so taken in by a con artist with the most transparent of false backstories. Yet, with some of the political hoaxes that have propagated throughout Washington the past few years, this becomes substantially more believable, almost expected.
It is obvious straight away that Mott is the one who murdered Brecht, even if it is not shown until the end. The film even opens on the night of Elsa’s murder before flashing back to see how it all began. It is also clear very early on that Mott’s impressive background is smoke-and-mirrors. None of this matters, however, as the fun and the tension come not from wondering if, but how. Every reveal, each more startling — and by extension exciting — than the last, will keep you glued to your seat, desperate to learn more.
The film is a stunning debut for Waltz, hopefully the first of many films with the Academy Award winner behind the camera. The shots are well-composed, and the camera movements add to the atmosphere and storytelling without calling too much attention to themselves. The sound design likewise functions beautifully, with Lorne Balfe’s tense score subtly ramping up the tension in the background. The impressive technical facets of the film support a phenomenal story and excellent leading performances.
Mott is the ideal role for Waltz. Equal parts socially awkward and charming, with a dark side lurking underneath the façade, Waltz handles his characters’ various sides with ease. It would have been easy for the narrative to paint Mott in one of two lights, but Waltz decided to go a more complex, interesting route.
He could have been the substance-less schemer, surviving purely on charm and social connections, but despite his false background, he knew a considerable amount about foreign affairs and could hold his own in political discussions. Mott also may have been portrayed as a tragic genius, how he most likely saw himself, an outsider whose intellect is held back only by his unimpressive background. The middle ground was a far stronger choice than either of the more clichéd extremes, as the villain protagonist can remain compelling without being sympathetic.
Redgrave is equally well-suited as his partner in crime. She brings a heartbreaking fragility to the role, paired with a whip-smart savvy and determination. Far from a passive victim, Elsa is actively involved in Mott’s schemes, excited to mold him into a success. She clearly is inspired, however, by a desire for companionship and care for the younger man as much as social ambition, making his moments of cruelty difficult for viewers to stomach.
Waltz and Redgrave make an excellent team, handling the nuances of their messy relationship with grace and believability. The collaborations are imbued with a sense of excitement, while vicious fights become painful, almost voyeuristic to witness. Rounding out the cast are solid supporting turns by Annette Benning as Elsa’s concerned daughter and Corey Hawkins as Mott’s baffled attorney.
“Georgetown” is a wildly engaging political thriller. The film’s insane — mostly true — story is better than most fiction could create and is translated expertly to screen by an impressive first-time director and a strong cast. This smart, funny, tension-filled movie is sure to entertain.