The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)
Somewhere in England, many moons ago, the powers-that-be decided the best way to make films was to borrow the concept of the repertory company from the theatre. So, as we work our way through the Ealing comedies to the Carry On films and beyond, a template for success emerged. Essentially this involves taking a small group of well-known actors, dropping them into a “situation” and watching what happens. These victims of circumstance are usually friends, often living together in the same village or part of a city. The catalyst can be anything from a cargo of whisky washing up on shore to the need for the WI to raise money for a worthy local cause. Once the characters are established and the stimulus applied, the cast twists and turns in the wind until all the loose ends have been chased down and resolved. The film ends when as much of the inherent tragedy has been dispelled and there’s enough hope to inspire the paying customers when they leave the cinema. Never let it be said that any British film carrying the label of a comedy is anything other than a pottage of misery that ends with half a smile.
So it is with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) in which director John Madden works from a screenplay by Ol Parker based on a novel by Deborah Moggach. We start off by meeting our indomitable character actors. We find Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) two months after the death of her husband. She was married forty years, was never troubled with any decision-making and, consequently, has no way of dealing with all the debts he left behind other than by selling the flat and going somewhere cheap to live. Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy) is a recently retired civil servant who lost his lump sum when he invested in his daughter’s IT business. The initial scenes as he and Jean Ainslie (Penelope Wilton) look around a flat in sheltered accommodation nicely captures their despair. Murial Donnelly (Maggie Smith) was in service. She was highly competent, but when she grew old and had trained her successor, she was discarded in much the same way her employers might throw out an old washing machine. Now she needs a hip replacement and the waiting times in the UK are a minimum of six months. Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) is a retiring High Court judge who wants to return to his old home in India where he left a friend forty years ago. Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) and Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) are getting old and desperately lonely. They hope to remedy their situation by joining the others in retirement in Jaipur as the first residents of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (for the Old and Beautiful).
From the outset, we have to suspend disbelief. The hotel is run by Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel). He’s the stereotypical Wilkins Micawber, always convinced something will turn up. Unfortunately, his head is so far up into the clouds of optimism, he forgets to actually do anything to make any of his plans a success. The idea he could have advertised his hotel in England and organised the arrival of these seven guests is laughable. Equally absurd is the reaction of the magnificent seven when they discover the hotel is slightly less well-appointed than they might have thought from the Photoshopped pictures. However, we’re not to dwell on such matters. Our heroes arrive, they move in. That gets us started.
The city of Jaipur is beautifully filmed and the hotel is wonderfully dilapidated. So, with one exception, they all use it as a base. Tom Wilkinson immediately sets off in pursuit of his old friend, Bill Nighy takes to wandering round and soaking up the atmosphere. Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie join the local social club and start searching for singles. Maggie Smith goes into hospital to have her operation, Judi Dench gets a job in a local call centre, advising on how to make telephone sales pitches to elderly people in England, and Penelope Wilton sits around the hotel in dark despair. As a local subplot, Dev Patel is in love with a girl who works at the call centre but her face does not fit into his mother’s plans for an arranged marriage. Continuing in the same order, Tom Wilkinson’s search is a mixture of fear and longing. The resolution of this thread is unexpected and affecting. Bill Nighy is a civil servant who has never managed to change a lightbulb. He’s defeated by practicality yet desperately loyal to his wife. In a way, both men are somewhat unworldly but do their best to fit in, no matter where they may find themselves (even if it means partaking of a little apple smoke). Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie are driven by desperation. They fear dying alone but have been trying too hard to meet people and make friends. They end with varying degrees of success.
The most interesting thread is given to Maggie Smith and I find myself undecided on whether she could make the transformation we see. In England and immediately on her arrival in India, she appears to be irredeemably racist. Putting the best possible interpretation on what happens, we’re supposed to think this was born out of ignorance. Because she had never met “different” people, she instinctively feared and so refused contact with them. However, when she finally does allow herself to interact with some of the local people, she embarrasses herself into rethinking her prejudice. In a way, the result is a somewhat ironic return to her life of service. Judi Dench gives a wonderful performance as a woman relearning what it’s like to have a life. It’s a warm and, at times, amusing journey as she remembers the time she met her husband-to-be on a carousel and he put his arm around her waist to steady her on a rising and falling horse. Watching her give up the past and embrace the future is a delight. Penelope Wilton gets her way and goes back to England (and not a moment too soon). Dev Patel is also rescued from himself, so it all works out well in the end. Ah yes. Here comes the catchphrase. It does all come out well in the end. If things are not well at this moment, it can’t be the end.
So on balance, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is worth seeing. I smiled and shed a tear or two. It’s a classic ensemble British comedy so the tears won out, albeit there had to be a little finagling in the plot to get everything to end as it should. Without a little contrivance, life would be too dull.