Your parents probably don’t want to go to The Avengers this weekend (and that’s okay!) but audiences can do far worse for themselves than to take a quick cinematic trip to John Madden‘s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. While a film about a pack of retired Brits heading off to live in a swank retirement resort in India that, surprise!, turns out to be a rundown old hotel might sound like the most boring and narrowly appealing film of the year, Madden’s film is actually consistently delightful and charming, with enough characters and plot points to engage just about any viewer. Running just over two hours, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is able to tackle issues big (homophobia, arranged marriage) and small (there are too many flies in my rundown retirement hotel room!), and despite a few moments that feel far too obvious, Madden and his cast have crafted a lovely film with unexpected mass appeal.
Madden whips right through introductions to all the future hotel residents within the film’s first ten minutes – we meet widow Evelyn (Judi Dench), very recent retiree Graham (Tom Wilkinson), unsettled and unfulfilled Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton), rascal Norman (Ronald Pickup), vicious old Muriel (Maggie Smith), and former heartbreaker Madge (Celia Imrie). None of them are happy with their current state of being, and its that dissatisfaction that drives all of them to stumble upon ads and Internet listings for young Sonny Kapoor’s (Dev Patel) Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, billed as a luxury retirement resort in vibrant India. Before we know it, the entire gang is lined up at the airport, setting off for what should be a magical adventure. And it is – it’s just not exactly what they were expecting.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a dump, formerly operated by Sonny’s beloved (and now deceased) father, a dreamer – just like Sonny. Bent on taking control of his own destiny (which also includes a romance with the lovely Sunaina, who is old school mother does not approve of), Sonny hopes that this first wave of residents will help him acquire more funding for the place so that he can actually turn it into the beautiful home and business he imagines it to be. Sonny is not the only one hoping or looking for something in India – his new ex-pats are, too. Evelyn is looking for purpose, Graham for an old love he left behind when he lived in India as a young man, Norman and Madge both want love (of some kind), Douglas wants to find something beautiful, and Jean and Muriel both hide their desires under prickly, pissed off exteriors. Their inevitable cultural acclimation to their loud, beautiful new home is nothing compared to the acclimation they all most undergo to themselves. But it’s a fair bit more fun than that all sounds.
Despite focusing primarily on people in the autumn of their lives (and even some people closer to winter than we might first expect), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its characters ask universal questions through the scope of advanced age – is there still time for adventure? is there still time for love? are there any surprises left? – and, most compelling – can people change? Some of them do, in rich and unexpected ways. Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker run some interference throughout the film’s first act, directing eyes and expectations this way and that way, doubling back, pushing and pulling characters in ways that look and feel obvious- until Madden and Parker flip the script and answer their own questions: yes, there are surprises left.
The film undoubtedly benefits from its star-studded cast, made up of some of the finest actors the UK has to offer. Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson both dial down their usual intensity to play characters that exhibit a vulnerability we don’t often get to see from either of them (at least, not in this plain a manner), and even Bill Nighy gets to infuse his standard drollness with actual conflict and occasionally heart-stabbing sadness. With such a large cast, some characters get left behind for long periods of time, and the film eventually puts its focus Evelyn, Graham, Muriel, and Douglas, with everyone else playing (generally well-advised) second fiddle. Dench is surely the center of the film – Madden and Parker have something unwisely allowed Evelyn to deliver an often too-spot-on voiceover that hammers home what the film is trying to say, when it’s fully capable of expressing itself without it.
A crowd-pleaser of the most unexpected kind, a family-friendly film for the older set, and a surprisingly charming and applicable of slice of life film, you might not want to live at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but you’ll want to settle in and stay for awhile.
The Upside: Generally charming and entertaining; great performances from great actors; beautiful scenery and location; run through with a bevy of emotionally honest moments.
The Downside: Runs a bit long; some characters are abandoned for long stretches of time; skates over big issues.
On the Side: Peter O’Toole and Julie Christie were originally set to play the parts of Norman and Madge but were later replaced by Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie.