Like Florida, but with elephants: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Judi Dench in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Moviegoers of a Certain Age (the age range least likely to have been on tenterhooks waiting for the latest blockbuster based on comic books to come out), be prepared to be both charmed and outraged by The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: charmed by extraordinary ensemble acting, excellent writing and intoxicating cinematography, and outraged that the movie industry regards you as too dispensable a demographic to give this delightful film broader distribution.

It looks like you’ll have another week to catch it at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck; it may then resurface at Upstate’s Woodstock counterpart, and will likely appear at the Rosendale Theatre in another week or three. See it wherever you can, whenever you can – and on the big screen if possible, in order to experience in full the teeming, color-saturated streetscapes of modern-day India where the story is mainly set.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is – or at least appears to be, through the wonders of PhotoShop – the Holy Grail of luxurious, affordable retirement, dangled in front of seven aging Brits by a rather overenthusiastic young Indian called Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire). Sonny has inherited a down-at-the-heels former palace in Udaipur from his father and is determined to return it to its former glory, if he can only find an investor. His mother wants him to let developers bulldoze the place while he comes home to an arranged marriage in Delhi. Sonny wants to attain enough success at running the palace as a hotel for “the elderly and beautiful” to marry his girlfriend Sunaina (Tena Desae). “I have a dream, Mamiji,” he says, “to outsource old age.”

The seven retirees, each with his or her own reason to be ready to leave dear old England, have their respective levels of adventurousness put to the test by the shabby conditions that they encounter when they finally get to the Hotel, after a journey plagued with mishaps. As the camera meanders from character to character, we ingest their personalities and histories in small, tantalizing doses. Judi Dench plays Evelyn Greenslade, a London housewife who has been forced to sell her home to settle her late husband’s debts. She is ready to make an entire new start of her life, and the blog that she writes for her family back home is the closest thing that the movie has for a narration. Sunaina works at one of those call centers where people with heavy Indian accents introduce themselves with fake Anglo names, and Evelyn lands a job there – her first-ever – training the young customer service reps in how to keep British customers from hanging up on them.

Also in difficult financial straits, after sinking their retirement investments into their daughter’s floundering Internet startup company, are the miserably married Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean Ainslie (Penelope Wilton). Evelyn bonds quickly with Douglas, who shares her openness to new experiences, even if they don’t turn out to be what was originally expected. “All life is here,” he avers. Jean, on the other hand, hates everything about her Third-Worldy new home and refuses to leave the Hotel – except to traipse after Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson), a retired judge whom she idolizes for his perceived worldly success. Graham, who spent his youth in India, has his own deep historical reasons for returning there that do not bode well for Jean’s overtures.

Meanwhile, the magnificent Maggie Smith plays Muriel Donnelly, who deeply distrusts Indians and refuses to eat anything that she can’t pronounce, but is unwilling to wait six months for a hip replacement operation back in England. We discover that Muriel has spent her life “in service,” never having a family so that she could take care of someone else’s – until she trained her replacement too well and was let go. A sense of shared professionalism enables Muriel to connect with a servant at the Hotel who is an Untouchable, so that her own bitterness and racism gradually begin to thaw as she recovers from her surgery.

Completing the septet are Celia Imrie as Madge Hardcastle, a much-married golddigger who is having trouble letting go of her crumbling beauty, and the very funny Ronald Pickup as Norman Cousins, an old horndog who has run out of one-night-stand prospects in England. As Evelyn and Douglas assist Graham with his mysterious mission of tracking down an old flame, the wheels of destiny are set in motion and each guest at the Marigold Hotel must decide whether and how to fall under the spell of a vivid, exotic, chaotic culture.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Debt) and adapted by Ol Parker from Deborah Moggach’s 2004 novel These Foolish Things. The screenplay offers no huge surprises or plot twists, and some of the paths to resolution of these characters’ inner and outer conflicts may seem a bit worn and even sentimental. Well-traveled viewers may also find some of the Indian characters a wee bit stereotyped. But the byplay amongst this ensemble of the cream of older British thespians is beautifully timed and nuanced, with no one ego visibly striving to outshine his or her fellows, though each one is a true national treasure. For admirers of superlative acting, I can scarcely imagine a more pleasurable two hours’ diversion than a stay at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

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