Splendid cast tries retirement, Indian-style, in entertaining 'Marigold Hotel'
The perfect antidote to the summer blockbuster season,The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a wistful, humorous, grown-up story of love, loss, family, identity, and the ever-present whooshing of time's wingéd chariot. Its splendid ensemble cast play Englishmen and women of a certain age, gobsmacked by circumstances, who decide to "outsource" their retirement to sunny, inexpensive India.
Scripted by Ol Parker, it's adapted from the 2004 novel, "These Foolish Things," by Deborah Moggach. (She also wrote the terrific screenplay for the 2005 Pride and Prejudice). And it's directed with quiet affection and precision by John Madden (Shakespeare In Love; The Debt), who knows a thing or two about maueuvering gifted ensemble players around the screen and standing back to let them do their thing. The plotlines are fairly predictable, and it all relies a bit much on inspirational messaging, but it's still a pleasure to watch throughout.
New widow Evelyn (Judi Dench), learns her husband has mismanaged their finances and she must sell her comfy home in Sussex to pay his debts. Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a retiring judge who grew up in a diplomat's family in India, has a debt of his own to repay. Civil servant Douglas (Bill Nighy) and his wife, Jean (Penelope Wilton), have invested their life savings in their daughter's failed start-up, and can now only afford a "beige" flat in an assisted living community.
Working-class Muriel (Maggie Smith), recently let go from the wealthy family for whom she worked as housekeeper/nanny all her life, can't afford the hip replacement she needs in England. Jaunty roue Norman (Ronald Pickup) wants one last fling while he can still perform, and runaway grandma (and serial adventuress) Madge (Celia Imrie) is looking to outrun age with another romantic conquest or two.
Of course, their destination, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ("For the Elderly and Beautiful") in Bangalore, is not exactly like the brochure. Proprietor Sonny (Dev Patel, from Slumdog Millionaire) is an eager young dreamer with a line of placating patter trying to revive the business that ruined his father. Phones don't work, plumbing is temperamental and the place is half in ruin, but India in all its teeming exotica is right outside. Blogging to her family, Evelyn compares it to "a tide;" one can either "dive in" (as she does, landing a job at a call center, schooling the operators in English customs), or "resist" (like miserable Jean). The idea is "not just to cope," she says, "but to thrive."
Dench's clear-eyed, intrepid Evelyn, Wilkinson's soulful Graham, and Nighy's open-hearted Douglas form the tale's most resonant alliances, while Smith's initially prejudiced Muriel makes the most engaging about-face. Dench in particular can make even the corniest line a stirring call to action. ("The only real failure is the failure to try.") Even when we know where the interwoven storylines are going, or crises are resolved way too easily, these veteran players are simply delicious to watch.
Besides, being a little corny is not exactly a capital offense, especially when the corn is shucked by such distinctive and entertaining pros as this lot. It may not be social realism, but the film and its source material fall squarely into what Carolyn Heilbron in "Writing A Woman's Life" calls the obligation of female writers "to create women characters, and sometimes male characters, who might openly enact the dangerous adventures of a woman's life ... the alternative life (the writer) wished to inscribe upon the female imagination."
In other words, there's nothing wrong with creating an idealized vision of a kind of life and future that we might dream for ourselves. This story offers a blueprint for hope that we can all face the challenges of our own lives—death, separation, financial reversal, old age itself—with courage, dignity and wit. Madden's film also argues that the ability to learn, adapt, and, yes, even thrive, continues throughout one's entire lifespan—a message of encouragement we are all eager to embrace.
THE BEST EXOTIC
★★★ (out of four)
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With Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, and Maggie Smith. Written by Ol Parker. From the novel by Deborah Moggach. Dircted by John Madden. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated PG-13. 124 minutes.
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