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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
The Eiffel Tower rose in two years without power tools or construction cranes. Martin Bourboulon’s ambitious, handsomely appointed and unapologetically old-fashioned Eiffel took 25 years to make it to the screen and that’s a good thing since digital effects render the various stages of the so-called “staircase to infinity” with startling realism. As viewers, we know that the 300 metre tower will indeed be built however Gustave Eiffel himself, sceptical creditors and his mostly loyal but sometimes unpaid workers have no such certainty. The late 1880s were a time of incredible invention and upheaval and Eiffel was intent on pursuing challenges he could call “modern”. Eiffel’s real-life track record of impressive exploits and setbacks is far too rich to cover in any one film. So Eiffel narrows its focus by pairing name-recognition with informed speculation about “why” he went from showing scant interest in contributing a structure to the 1889 World’s Fair to being hell-bent on constructing the tallest man-made thing to date.
Eiffel, who came from a modest background, had to conceive the tower and inspire his builders. His motivation, the film posits, was to impress a re-discovered long lost love. Twenty-five years after incidents that are doled out with the right mix of flashbacks and emotional secrecy, he crosses paths with one Adrienne Bourgès (Emma Mackey), now the wife of an influential newspaper columnist (Pierre Deladonchamps), whose support the marketing-conscious Eiffel needs to erect an unavoidably prominent iron structure upon the sedate Paris landscape.
Romain Duris looks fetching in period garb as does Mackey, who is both convincing and fun to watch as a seemingly spoiled young beauty schooled in frivolity and seduction who turns out to have a deeper personality than appearances would suggest. The scenes in which the feet of the tower seem destined to sink into bog and muck and the hold-your-breath suspense surrounding the ingenious sand-based system intended to properly align the entire structure are keenly depicted and thoroughly entertaining. Issues of class, wealth and power are woven into the tale but this is a bittersweet love story at heart.