Engineer extraordinaire Gustave Eiffel (Romain Duris) is unimpressed, on first pass, by the sketches of a giant metal pylon presented to him, as a possible centrepiece for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. “It’s ugly,” he declares to his underlings about this crude first draft, with the implication “must try harder”.
What changed his mind? The screenwriter of Eiffel, Caroline Bongrand, has concocted a theory, to do with a great lost love of his youth, a flighty ingénue called Adrienne Bourgès (Emma Mackey), whom Eiffel was prevented from marrying by her rich industrialist father.
As unproven propositions about historical figures go, this Francophone effort hews closer to Shakespeare in Love than to Anonymous – a fanciful embellishment of the facts, not a ripping up of every credible biography. Taken as a speculative romance, and in the right matinee spirit, it’s lushly engaging, with a star pairing that – appropriately – rivets.
The many ways the tower could have failed, throughout assembly, gives Martin Bourboulon’s picture a semblance of suspense. Feverish in his problem-solving, now that the grown, married Adrienne has shown up to stoke the flames of his creativity, Gustave uses dangerous compressed-air caissons to dig foundations into the Seine, and hydraulic jacks to lock the four legs together with last-second vertical adjustments. Somehow, we hold our breaths, momentarily forgetting that it (fairly self-evidently) went off fine.
The script has a plum, pastichey quality – at least, thus subtitled. “And there’s more – the Vatican is upset that it overshadows Notre-Dame!”, wails some worrywort. Eiffel had to face a barrage of opposition to get his baby off the ground, and the ironwork construction was so fiendish it’s a miracle only one person died in the process.
Mainly, though, this handsome trinket of a film exists to let the actors swoon their way through a love affair trapped in the same tortured/stymied realm as The English Patient. Alexandre Desplat’s quivering score – not always the case, this – is a genuine asset. Pierre Deladonchamps gets the Colin Firth role, meanwhile, as Adrienne’s slow-on-the-uptake husband. In the script’s biggest stretch, this guy is also, coincidentally, Eiffel’s press manager: no wonder the tide turns hostile.
Born to smoulder as exactly this kind of mercurial genius, Duris is rather moving by the end, even if you wish the film, like a harassed tour guide, weren’t in quite such haste to send us packing. Mackey, the half-French star of Sex Education and almost lone acting survivor of Death on the Nile, sold me on it most of all, ignoring the insane task of ageing 30 years (she’s 26) and simply excelling as a passionate lover in both timeframes. Taking its impetus from unflagging old Gustave himself, the film is a flagrantly overblown idea pulled off with frisky mettle.
15 cert, 108 min. In cinemas from Friday August 12