It is a rare film that is made about people of retirement age. Cinema tends towards glamorising youth, and romance always seems to happen to the attractive and young. Well, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (for the Elderly and Beautiful) is a film about seven English retirees who travel to India when they fortuitously find an advertisement online extolling the grace, beauty and exotic pleasures of the Marigold Hotel, a promising sounding hotel in Jaipur, the famed Pink City, with its palaces and romantic promises.
Each of the main characters has a tragic back story, some are unable to afford hip surgery in the UK and have been recommended to travel to India for a more budget surgery, others are retired civil servants barely able to afford a shabby apartment with a panic button in case they fall, one has lost a husband and her apartment in the course of paying off his debts, another is in search of a long lost Indian love.
This is a film about the indignities of growing old and the injustice that comes with it. Most of our characters have worked hard in their youth and cannot afford the blissful retirement they deserve, some are struggling with a life trajectory that has led them to a situation they can neither accept nor significantly change.
As the group arrives at the Marigold Hotel, the still relative strangers are dismayed to find that though it has charm, and a madcap young manager, Sonny Kapoor (played by the gangly, adolescent looking Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire) – the hotel is run down, a bit dilapidated, with dodgy plumbing and phones that don't ring. Additionally, of course, they must deal with the beauties and indignities of a fascinating and sprawling Mother India – where the proverbial gap between the rich and the poor is more of a chasm.
Though the social and cultural politics of the situation are not particularly well articulated, and the elderly team bumble through Jaipur trying to find themselves - the film does please and captivate. Mainly it is the consummate acting of stalwarts like Dame Judi Dench, who plays the gentle bereaved widow who learns how to blog in India, Tom Wilkinson, a retired High Court Judge who is also gay, and the marvelous, understated Bill Nighy as the defeated civil servant that allows the film to transcend its formula. These actors have played high drama to the hilt on stage. Dench in particular has acted as an unforgettable, searing Lady Macbeth opposite an equally unforgettable Ian McKellan (yes, he is Gandalph AND Magneto).
It's their skill that allows them to tone down, and lift up a mildly didactic comedy and incidental romantic drama such as this one. Dev Patel, however, is disappointing as Sonny, and just as the usually great Irfan Khan was terribly miscast in the new Spiderman film, so too is Patel who strives to be the central character in the film, but fails. In fact, it is his love interest, Sunaina, played by an unknown Tena Desae who captivates. One can only hope she will surpass the slightly banal Frieda Pinto soon in the future.
As one expects, there are happy endings all round and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is sure to bump up tourism in India. As for myself, I would re-watch the film just for the immense satisfaction derived from the final scene in which Bill Nighy and Judi Dench zoom around the crowded Jaipur streets on a motorbike.
John Madden, the director, may have made the sublime Shakespeare In Love but it is a brave and sensitive director who can also take on a film with an ensemble cast with an average age of 70. Kudos to him for pointing out to the world does not just revolve around beautiful people in the prime of their lives.
All DVDs reviewed in this column are available at:Music and Expression, Thamel, Phone # 014700092