Director: John Madden
Starring: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel
It's hardly news that the film industry undervalues its older performers and, indeed, older audiences, but it's difficult to understand why when you see a movie like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a thoroughly adult film in the non-NC17 meaning of the term. You'd be hard pressed to find a better cast than the one on display here and, though the story makes no attempts at reinventing the wheel, it's the sort of easy, low stakes drama that's perfect for this time of year.
The story centers on seven British seniors: recently widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench), spontaneously retired Judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson), husband hunting Madge (Celia Imrie), lonely Norman (Ronald Pickup), Jean and Doug (Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy), a married couple who have entered retirement with far less than they expected, and Muriel (Maggie Smith), a vocal racist who is sent to India in order to obtain a quick and less expensive hip replacement than she could receive at home. All are drawn to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in Jaipur, advertised as being a home for the "elderly and beautiful" and as a luxury residence - though the reality, as the group quickly discovers, is very different. The hotel, run by Sonny (Dev Patel), is in rough shape and the country itself it not what many of them were expecting. Instead of being an island of British paradise, separate and apart from its surroundings, it is instead right in the middle of all that many of the guests had been hoping to avoid.
Graham, who grew up in India, takes to the country immediately, setting off every day in search of his former lover, from whom he was separated as a teenager when their relationship was discovered. Evelyn busies herself by writting a blog about her experiences and taking a job at a call centre, where she trains people in how to speak to the elderly. She also develops a very tentative relationship with Doug, whose marriage to Jean becomes increasingly fraught due to Jean's unhappiness at everything from the loss of their nest egg to the poverty and strangeness that surrounds them. Madge and Norman are both in search of new romantic partners, and Muriel, having had her surgery, struggles to recover and, despite her overt racism, forms a bond of sorts with the woman who cleans the hotel. Having been a servant herself, Muriel sees something of herself in the woman and as she rediscovers her ability to be kind, Muriel's humanity, rather than her hatefulness, becomes her defining quality.
There are several small plots that weave their way through the story, though none, including the fate of the hotel, really dominates. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is far less concerned with its plot than it is with its characters and it does well by them, letting them grow at a natural pace and letting the masterful actors behind them do their thing. If at some point this film became the basis for a TV series, it wouldn't at all surprise me because the characters are so well-drawn and the premise presents so many possibilities.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a quiet movie in so far as even its most dramatic moments are played in a minor way. It's a gentle film that is content simply to spend time with its characters, easing them towards small revelations and changes. Later in the year, when the Oscar hopefuls start to be released at a swift pace, a film like this might seem too quaint, too unambitious, perhaps too timid - and it may very well be all those things but what we perhaps forget in the midst of Oscar fever is that those qualities aren't necessarily bad. A film doesn't have to want to change the world to be good, it merely has to successfully meet its goal, even if that goal is a modest one. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a nice movie of a type that comes along seldom. It won't redefine your understanding of cinema or storytelling, but it's a satisfying and entertaining piece of work.