Every once in a while a feel-good movie comes along so charming, delightful and effervescent that it overcomes numerous failings, lengths and oversimplifications. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is such a film. Despite inevitable sappiness and tired life lessons the movie, thanks to its exotic locations and its splendid cast, enchants the audiences and leaves a lasting impression. In the end it achieves just what it sets out to do – it makes the viewers feel good and that is already more than can be said about most of this year’s repertoire of films.
John Madden who for years has been struggling to re-capture the success he has had with Shakespeare in Love adapted Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things which revolves around a group of British pensioners travelling to a supposedly luxurious hotel in Jaipur, India to spend their Golden Years. They do it for different reasons. Evelyn (Judi Dench), recently widowed and burdened with her husband’s numerous debts, refuses to move in with one of her sons and upon finding a brochure of a supposedly luxurious resort decides to spend the remainder of her life in exotic India, while writing a blog about her adventures (which provides the occasional voiceover in the film). The Ainslies (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) have lost all of their possessions after investing into their daughter’s unsuccessful internet enterprise are now looking for an affordable place. Norman (Ronald Pickup), a love-starved, constantly horny man trapped in the body of a 70-year old is looking for female companionship on another continent. Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a retired judge travels to India to confront an incident from his past. Madge’s (Celia Imrie) big hope is to seduce and marry a maharaja who would serve as her sugar daddy. At last, the very British and more-than-slightly racist Muriel (Maggie Smith) travels to India for a hip-replacement surgery that she cannot afford back at home in England. Once they arrive, they find less of a state-of-the-art resort and more a ramshackle rundown compound with only traces of its former glory and an over-eager, but incompetent manager Sonny (Dev Patel), hellbent on restoring the place and making his father’s dream of a grand hotel for the elderly come true.
There is no doubt that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a calculated enterprise aimed to please its older target audiences and deliver its well-worn message in the most pleasing way possible. It appears to be a very popular idea in movies just as much as in real life that going to India (or other countries in the East) will inevitably lead to new great insights and reinvent your life. This is the premise that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is working from. Yet despite knowing all this, there is no resisting this heartwarming tale of friendship, love, self-discovery and forgiveness. Packaged in beautiful images of modern day India, we discover this exotic place along with the film’s protagonists who are played by a British cast so good that you could have them stand against a blank wall and read Financial Times outloud and yet be amazed at their abilities. Last year has given us a movie with one of the best British casts ever assembled on the big screen – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but the combination of Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson certainly challenges that. Each of them is at the top of their game in this movie. Even though the screenplay (and thus their characters) is filled with clichés, the fine thespians all rise above what they are given and manage to fully flesh out their flawed protagonists.
Judi Dench’s Evelyn serves as the film’s guiding light, providing occasional voiceover and overview insight through her blogging about the trip to India. Through her we experience the culture clash and the amazement of being in this faraway place first-hand. Bill Nighy plays at his best restrained here, but the look in his eyes and his uncertain body language say more than a thousand words. His interplay and chemistry with Judi Dench is palpable. Tom Wilkinson as the mournful guilt-plagued man who is looking for redemption is a particularly moving character with Wilkinson playing out all of his strengths. His character represents the liberal world-open Westerner who is appreciative of India and its exuberant culture and lifestyle from the getgo. The always reliable Maggie Smith pulls off the despicable racist part as well as her inevitable transformation impeccably, even though it goes a tad too easy ad a tad too fast. Smith makes us believe it, though, with her character given more depth at the end of the film than one would usually expect. It’s corny and predictable, but just like the rest of the film it tugs at the viewers’ heartstrings. The rest of cast is less focused on, but deserves praiseful mentions as well. Pickup as the aging lothario is vital and funny and Wilton as Nighy’s snippy and constantly discontent on-screen wife manages to conjure more sympathy for her character than she deserves. If there is a flaw to point out in the film’s cast, it’d be the youngling – Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel. His troubled love story with an emancipated girl (his mother isn’t too pleased) is a fairly neglected subplot and his turn as the eager-to-please Indian caught between tradition and the modern lifestyle comes off as a caricature more than anything.
However, the rest of the cast shines so bright that this small flaw is easily forgotten. Director John Madden keeps his work simple, letting his terrific ensemble do most of the work which is the wisest decision he could have ever made. Not only are the individual performances in the film great, but the cast members interact incredibly well with one another and get far more out of what the screenplay gives them. They truly elevate the film above what could have been your typical pretentious self-discovery trip as seen in Eat Pray Love not too long ago. One could spend a long time dissecting the film’s flaws, its naïve fascination with India which highlights all the aspects gladly seen by foreign tourists, but neglects or simplifies the country’s numerous unique issues such as the caste system or the burgeoning poverty. Or one could just enjoy the colorful, heartwarming delight that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is. At several points of the film Dev Patel’s Sonny says: “Everything will be all right in the end... if it's not all right then it's not the end.” This is the film’s mantra and it works better than one could ever imagine thanks to seven veterans acting as good as they ever have before. Like Sonny the movie is always eager to please the crowds and like Sonny its methods are not perfect. At the same time, its heart sits firmly in the right spot and in the end, no matter how much you try to resist, it wins you over. If there is any movie this year so far that has the audiences leave the theatre with a large smile on their faces, it’d be this one.