Veteraned Brits go abroad, adventure and self-discover
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the destination for a group of British retirees who leave their ordered, gray and wet England to the sweaty hotbed of India to find something of value. It’s formulaic and charmingly prophetic, and like most British comedies, boasts a strong ensemble cast that often papers the film’s clichéd cracks.
Directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), we follow the lives of seven Brits, each looking to outsource their retirement for different reasons. It’s not a consensus bucket list, more of a personal growing opportunity and something to look upon as a cultural experience that’s learned, not achieved, which is still possible for these elderly.Taken from Deborah Moggach’s book These Foolish Things, the film was adapted and penned by Ol Parker . He balances the streets of Jaipur between the peachiness of Eat Pray Love and the hostile malevolence of Slumdog Millionaire.
The travelers group together after numerous plane rides, bus trips and taxi excursions as they make their way to the hotel. Upon arrival, they quickly realize the establishment is not the picture in the brochure that inspired them. At first, the hotel exaggerates its second qualifier, completely strange and anything but the best, and so the Brits must learn to cope with door-less rooms and their feathered inhabitants.
We are introduced to Evelyn (Judi Dench) first, the story’s part-time narrator who brings an epistolary nature into the story. She recently lost her husband and now struggles to uphold the responsibilities that were foreign to her. She writes in her blog which is subsequently spoken aloud to us. It contains the same inquisitive nature, but far less ominous tone than her diary exposits in Notes on a Scandal. A frustrating phone-call at home with an out-of-country operator prompts a vocation for her in India when she becomes a teacher for the local telemarketing operations center.
A familiar face in Notes is also one of her travel companions, Douglas (Bill Nighy) along with his homesick wife Jean (Penelope Wilton). They lost a majority of their money in their daughter’s supposed fail-safe investment. Their arrival in India is an exciting change of pace for Douglas, but Jean finds its abnormalities far beyond her comfort and something that sparks an inevitable problem.
Muriel (Maggie Smith) is maybe the most bitter of the bunch, discriminatory from her opening dialogue. She learns that her replacement hip can be performed in Jaipur for a much cheaper cost and shorter wait. An ex-servant and housekeeper, her obdurate nature begins to weaken after teaching a few handy skills to another maid at the hotel. They slowly bond and Muriel, wheeling around in her temporary chair, begins to break from her shell.
Madge (Celia Imrie and Norman (Ronald Pickup) still have some youthful spry in their step, two singles on the lookout for exclusive
love. Madge fancies herself up daily and crashes high-end British parties, more self-conscious than bold in her tries at romance. Norman however learns to play his old, scruffy self to his advantage and lands a woman equally spontaneous.
Madden captures these fleeting souls and contrasts them against the vibrant, youthful exuberance of India’s bubbling younger generation. He parallels this with careful attention, like in last year’s The Debt (which also starred Tom Wilkinson), toggling between older and younger versions of Mossad agents and their fight against the evils of both humanity and time. Wilkinson continues this role, struggling with a bad heart that carries with it forty years of shame. He plays Graham who is rather secretive about his journey to India. He takes solitary walks each day out and about in the city, searching for an old acquaintance with a mysterious history. Wilkinson conveys such wisdom in the way he talks and carries himself, often played out through cricket tips with local youngsters, hinting at the binding cultural ties that harken back to Britain’s 19th century imperialism.
Hopeless romantic and hotel owner Sonny (Dev Patel) fulfills the kindred spirit role he played in Slumdog Millionaire, this time pining for another lover- blockaded by her status and his mother’s ill content. His architectural ambition is ill-met with his lack of financial means but it’s safe to say it boasts the cleaner living options in the neighborhood. His contentious romance is a debate that feels antiquated in the modern world, and it takes some self-reflection and a little help to nudge his mother to align with his visions.
Each character attains something, not through themselves but by seeing themselves in others. These learning curves are somewhat predictable, but nonetheless fulfilling, and while the film’s subtle hints at change and growth are evident, Evelyn reaffirms them with her dialogue. This is fine, but confines the audience much more. I find Dench’s expressions and Nighy’s perplexing looks much more engaging when left unspoken about. They each carry the film and suggest a reverence for their new quarters despite its uncouth appearance and sometimes chaotic, populous roads, further balancing the more predictable parts of the comedic genre.
Dev Patel throws away an old Indian proverb in his desperate attempt to keep his residents. “In the end everything will be all right. If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.” The message is equal parts gimmicky, equal parts reality. Sometimes it’s best if we hear it again.