I haven’t reviewed any movies lately because for the past few weeks I’ve been glued to this addictive Spanish TV series… so why not review it.
Gran Hotel has been described as Spain’s answer to Downton Abbey, and it’s easy to see why: set in the early 1900s in a resplendent aristocratic setting, check; upstairs/downstairs perspective and dynamic, check. However, at its heart Gran Hotel is a big fat juicy soap opera disguised as a prestige historical drama. It boasts sumptuous production values, exquisite costumes and gorgeous locations, all photographed in cool tasteful tones, and it’s extremely well-acted, with entertaining and distinctive characters instantly capturing your attention.
At the same time, it moves at a frenetic pace and every episode is packed with drama and twists: who is sleeping with whom, who is plotting against whom, who knows whose secrets. Pretty much every major character gets arrested and thrown into prison at some point; there are faked pregnancies, duels, serial killers, secret heirs, infidelities and never-ending backstabbing. You also have to swallow a lot of ridiculous implausibilities, but hey that’s part of the fun.
As the name indicates, the show follows the inner workings of a luxurious hotel, set in the fictional Spanish seaside town and owned by the rich Alarcón family. We enter this insular world via Julio, a young man who pretends to be a new waiter in order to investigate the disappearance (and suspected murder) of his sister Cristina, a maid at the hotel. He finds an unlikely ally in Alicia, the youngest daughter of the Alarcón family, and quicker than you can say “Jack and Rose” the pair fall in love. Their secret star-crossed, class-defying romance is a major running thread of the series, and it’s unabashedly old-fashioned, sincerely embracing all the romantic tropes with no modern cynicism in sight. What’s also refreshing is that the (very attractive) leads have a wonderful and believable chemistry as lovers and best friends.
But of course it’s not just about Julio and Alicia and their romantic ups-and-downs; the show is a maze of characters with their share of desires, ambitions and secrets. Alicia’s mother Doña Teresa is a ruthless and demanding matriarch you don’t want to mess with, with two more children: a daughter married to a rather wishy-washy marquess, and an irresponsible black-sheep son who lurches from one personal disaster to another and has more lives than a cat. There’s Julio’s adorable friend Andrés, a fellow waiter whose stern and regal mother runs the downstairs, and who’s sweet on Belén, a scheming and unscrupulous maid. There’s Diego Murquía, the manager of the hotel who is set to marry Alicia and whose soap opera villain appearance hides – surprise – a soap opera villain. Finally, there’s a delightful pair of cops: an investigator armed with a sharp mind and all the latest forensic know-how, and his rather dim-witted sidekick.
The murder mystery aspect is another staple of the show: each of the three seasons is dedicated to unravelling a crime, which usually reveals an even bigger and more elaborate web of intrigue and murder. There’s a totally random but entertaining appearance by none other than the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, who stays at the hotel as a young woman about to write her very first crime novel. The series even cheekily point to Inspector Ayala as the mustachioed inspiration for Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Oh and Harry Houdini pops up as well.
I’m so used to slow-burn TV drama these days that the series’ breakneck pace took some getting used to; I’ve gone from hopelessly hooked to somewhat exhausted and then back to hooked. Though the show does give its Big Scenes a room to breathe, at times it almost felt like you were watching a summary of an episode; many scenes could really use an extra beat. I also never got used to Netflix chopping up the original series into shorter chunks, which resulted in rather weird and abrupt episode endings.
After the first two gripping seasons, I felt that the quality slipped somewhat in the third and final season, where things maybe got ever so slightly on the wrong side of overwrought. The long-awaited resolutions for the major characters were a mixed bag in the finale, though to be fair most landed reasonably well. Also, the show kinda falls into the common trap for the series with large casts, where some characters become hermetically sealed off in their own storylines; you could be forgiven for forgetting that Alicia even had siblings.
All in all, after weeks of being engrossed in their personal lives and dramas, I was rather sad to see the last of these characters and their magnificent playground. And Spanish language was of course a joy to listen to, even if it meant that you couldn’t break away from the subtitles to fix yourself a cuppa, in case you missed some crucial revelations.