‘Must see’ movie - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Cynics will doubtless roll their eyes, but many of us are suckers for gray-liberation movies in which the English break out of their emotionally constricted shells abroad, frequently stumbling upon the lost spirit of their youth in the process. It’s hard to go wrong when you assemble actors of the calibre of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson, and that cast alone makes The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a mandatory cinema-going experience

Director John Madden’s captivating comedy, set against the bustle and color of Jaipur, India, will be a particular crowd pleaser among the under-served over-60 demographic. Adapted by Ol Parker from Deborah Moggach’s novel, ‘These Foolish Things,’ the story has its share of mechanical developments. But even at its most predictable, the winning characterisations and soulful insights into growing old disgracefully keep the handsome film on a warmly satisfying track

A quickfire opening montage, featuring tiny scenes spliced together quickly relates the circumstances of the seven elderly protagonists. Recently widowed Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) has just found out her late husband frittered away most of their money and has to sell her plush London home to pay off debts. Married couple Douglas and Jean Ainslie (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) have likewise been unlucky and lost all their savings investing in their daughter’s struggling startup

High Court Judge Graham (Wilkinson) is retiring after a long and respected career. Madge (Celia Imrie) is too frisky to stay home playing granny, and randy old Norman (Ronald Pickup) can no longer continue lying about his age on dating sites. Finally, die hard xenophobe Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) discovers that getting a hip replacement and recovering from it in India would be a better option than what’s on offer from Blighty’s national health service

All of the above thus choose to ‘outsource’ themselves to the newly opened Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in Jaipur, a once-stately, now-ramshackle palace that irrepressibly optimistic owner Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) has presciently marketed to the Geritol set as a retirement residence. However, he’s rather played down in his brochure the lack of doors on some of the rooms and presence of roosting pigeons in others

They receive an effusive welcome from Sonny, a well-intentioned but disorganized young entrepreneur who inherited the once-grand hotel from his father. But it soon becomes clear that improvements on the dilapidated property have stalled. In addition to a retreating investor, Sonny faces obstacles from his overbearing mother (Lillette Dubey). She aims to force him into a more secure business and an arranged marriage, frowning on his far-too-modern girlfriend (Tena Desae)

The seven transplants take up various attitudinal positions on India. Having been raised there as a child and back now to search for a long-lost love, Graham embraces India’s challenges, its kind people and beauty. At the other end of the spectrum, Jean is horrified by the inefficiency and squalor, and refuses to venture further than the hotel compound, while Muriel, incapacitated by her surgery, similarly stays put and insists she won’t eat anything she doesn’t know how to pronounce

The most affecting thread follows Graham, the sole member of the group with a previous connection to India, having spent his privileged childhood there. A gay man “more in theory than in practice nowadays,” he has lived with regret and self-recrimination since returning to England to go to college. He left behind the love of his youth to face what he assumes was a life of shame. Observed with sensitivity and played with a deep well of sorrow by Wilkinson, this story breathes real tenderness into the movie’s reflections on growing older and making peace with past mistakes

The heart of the film, however, is Evelyn, whose blog entries, heard in voiceover, provide a running commentary. It’s news to nobody at this point that Dench is a class act, and she depicts with the most delicate of brushstrokes the late-in-life reflowering of a woman previously defined through her marriage. Nighy matches Dench with his subtle work. Playing a droll variation on the henpecked husband, he shrugs off Jean’s barbs until her unrelenting negativity causes Douglas to explode in a terrific confrontation. Wilton is all brittleness and pretentious airs (“Obviously, one’s read one’s Kipling”), but even Jean is allowed a hint of redemptive humanity in Parker’s generous screenplay

On the heels of her peerless work in Downton Abbey, it’s refreshing to see quintessential toff Smith play working-class. Her turnabout is a perhaps too abrupt to be believed, but the actress deftly handles sour Muriel’s gradual discovery of a new sense of purpose as she assumes a decisive role in the hotel’s survival. Imrie and Pickup play it a little broader but with brio nonetheless. And in the most substantial of the Indian roles, Patel brings an appealing grasp of gangly physical comedy. He pushes the ingratiating, over-caffeinated ethnic stereotype in ways that offset the generally more understated work of the senior cast

Performances are an embarrassment of riches, from Maggie Smith’s racist housekeeper, who surveys a black nurse at her local hospital and sneers, “He can wash all he likes - that colour’s not coming out”, to Penelope Wilton’s well-to-do wife, who constantly belittles her husband, telling him, “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”

Imrie and Pickup are delicious comic relief, the latter asked at one point, “Aren’t you scared about having sex at your age?”  Without missing a beat, he replies, “If she dies, she dies!”

Cinematographer Ben Davis puts a crisp gloss on the Rajasthan locations, his cameras opting for vigorous mobility or serenity as the immediate environment dictates. And Thomas Newman’s flavorful score adds to the intoxicating sensory overload. The film’s pacing may be a touch leisurely for some, but its core audience no doubt will relish having time to savor the rewards of a mellow story about endearing characters learning that change is never entirely out of reach

Underneath all larkiness, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel makes interesting points about the challenges facing elderly people trying to cope in an adverse economic climate, and the globalisation of service industries. Although the point is too tidily made, there’s an interesting parallel between the way companies outsource customer care to call centers in India and the way seniors are forced to retire to developing nations where their money will go further. Ten or 20 years ago, the movie’s characters might have found themselves in Spain’s Costa del Sol or one of Italy’s remoter regions, but the weakness of the pound versus the Euro makes the core premise a not unlikely one. For a more detailed analysis go to Age Uk

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a delight, milking laughter and tears as characters reach crossroads in their lives. It’s a film with appeal across the generations, tapping into universal fears of being forgotten in old age. Go see it

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February 29, 2012

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