Over the past 20 years British filmmakers have shown a remarkable knack for producing solid, if not exceptionable, entertainment for older filmgoers. Films such as Calendar Girls and Mrs Henderson Presents have brought in the viewers, often in their senior years, while also being satisfying enough to keep the critics from giving them the mauling their American equivalents receive (c.f. It’s Complicated).
The latest of these goldies for oldies is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a coming of old-age comedy drama about finding yourself, even if it’s only in the autumn years.
The film follows seven seniors (played by actors ranging from their late 50s to their mid 70s) who find themselves travelling together to a paradisaical retirement home in Jaipur, India. Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) are escaping a future in an old folks’ home. Widow Evelyn (Judi Dench) needs to get away from the memory of her husband. Wheelchair-bound Muriel (Maggie Smith) needs a new hip, and will get it sooner in India. Graham (Tom Wilkinson) quits his role as a top judge to seek out an old friend in the city where he grew up. Norman (Ronald Pickup) is just there to get his geriatric jiggy on, while Madge (Celia Imrie) is after her umpteenth husband.
Of course the hotel is not what its Photoshop-blitzed website advertised, and the seniors find themselves at the mercy of Dev Patel’s hotel manager – a kind-hearted but cheesy salesman type, determined he can “outsource” Britain’s elderly. As repairs to the crumbling hotel go on around them, the British guests find themselves, for the most part, being slowly seduced by India’s blatant and hidden beauties.
There’s no denying the first 30 minutes of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel feel familiar. They follow the same trajectory as every holiday from hell comedy you’ve ever seen. But after that something shifts, and this late-life crisis movie becomes something altogether different, more honest and much, much sweeter than expected.
While this is partially down to the restrained direction of John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and an unexpectedly original script, the real saviour of this film is the performances. While Dench is a little on auto-pilot, she manages to pull off some magic here, especially when opposite Bill Nighy. Maggie Smith goes completely against type to play a working-class woman who spouts the sort of racist comments that would cost a highly rated American comedian their career. Penelope Wilton, best known to half the audience as Shaun’s mum in Shaun of the Dead (where she was also married to Nighy, curiously) and to the other half as Cousin Isobel in Downton Abbey, also rejects the usual sweetness she is typecast with and here plays the uptight bitch.
However, it is Tom Wilkinson, playing an Englishman again for the first time in what feels like forever, who steals the film, with his best performance since Michael Clayton in 2007. He delivers many of the film’s best lines with an honest intensity beyond what the film calls for, and his story would only fail to touch the stoniest-hearted of viewers.
With little sense of mysticism or magic and none of the ‘white people solve foreigners’ problems’ one might expect of a similar Hollywood production, this is honest, well-meaning fun, and won’t just appeal to filmgoers over 60. Patel’s performance may hover on the border between stereotype and racist, but the overall image of India presented is a positive one. Though, much like some of the film’s characters, it won’t be to everyone’s taste.
A final word of warning; the film suffers from a violent case of ‘best lines in the trailer’-osis. If you’ve already decided to give the film a look, I recommend avoiding the trailer at all costs.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)