The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
When seven British retirees find that life didn’t work out the way they expected in stodgy England, they hightail it to India, where they assume they’ll live out their golden years in some Victorian-colonialist dream.
What they get is a decaying hotel, food that charges the digestive tract without mercy and a culture shock that there are, gasp, Indians living in India.
It’s easy to pick apart The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for its idealized embracing of simple Indian life and healthy use of cliché. But the film is so charming that you find yourself smiling and enjoying the ride, even if you can predict the outcome.
The seniors at the center of the film have familiar stories. But director John Madden (The Debt) was clever enough to cast veteran character actors able to make these well-worn types come alive on the screen.
Evelyn (Judi Dench: J. Edgar) is a recently widowed housewife whose late husband has left her in financial desperation. She sells her flat, puts down an investment in the hotel and looks for her first job.
Graham (Tom Wilkinson: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) is a retired high court judge who seeks redemption and a lost love in India. Norman (Ronald Pickup: The Jury II) hopes a change of scenery will make him the lothario he’s always hoped to be. Madge (Celia Imrie: Cranford) is looking for a wealthy new husband and a bit of adventure.
Doug and Jean Ainslie are low on capital and high on airs. They must resort to living in India when their cash flow won’t allow them to retire properly in Britain. And racist Muriel (Maggie Smith: Downton Abbey) can barely stand people of color in London but is forced to make the journey to India for a low-cost hip replacement.
All of these types congregate at the Marigold Hotel, which is the dilapidated dream of Sonny (Dev Patel: The Last Airbender). Though his heart is in the right place, Sonny has no head for business. His dream is crumbling around him. Rooms don’t have doors, windows don’t have screens and furniture has collapsed under years of dust. It’s interesting to note, however, that the hotel with no working phones apparently has a WiFi hub so that Evelyn can write her blogs.
Madden cleverly puts you in the Brits’ position for the first half of the movie, rapidly cutting together scenes of massing people, chaotic marketplaces and whirling traffic. It’s disorienting for you and the characters, and it’s a really effective illustration of the fish-out-of-water theme. Most of the Marigold residents learn to cope with their environment as they embrace a new culture.
The poverty of the locale is hinted at in a few sequences. One assumes the British are too polite to address that hot-button issue directly.
Saving the film from becoming a Hallmark Channel feature are some truly wonderful performances. Dench is solid as a grieving widow who must rebuild her life as an independent woman. Wilkinson conveys a lifetime of regret and heartbreak as he searches for the love he lost years ago. But it’s Smith who steals the show with an impressive performance that mixes her snobbish Downton Abbey dowager character with the comedic bigotry of Archie Bunker. It’s hard to play a racist for laughs, but Smith is able to win sympathy even when she’s being hateful.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not a groundbreaking work of staggering genius. It’s a good-hearted film that assures the audience they’re never too old for one last adventure. It faithfully follows in the footsteps of Enchanted April and Calendar Girls, comedies about the reawakening of the spirit. That genuine sense of hope makes Marigold relatable and likeable in spite of its flaws.
If you’re looking for the film equivalent of a cup of tea and shortbread, this warm, funny trifle will satisfy.