When the trailer for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel started appearing in Manhattan cinemas last autumn, I was struck by how many laughs it got and figured, given its golden cast, that it would be a success, but I was also curious to see how – a few years on since Slumdog Millionaire – another film about India by a British director would be received beyond the shores of the US and UK. (The film releases in India a fortnight from now.)
The opening scenes in England telegraph the situations of the principals: Dame Judy Dench as Evelyn Greenslade, widowed and suddenly bankrupt, Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy as Jean and Douglas Ainslie, financially strapped and depressed by how small a retirement home their “grey pound” will buy, Tom Wilkinson as Graham Dashwood, restless and having just made a snap decision to retire, Dame Maggie Smith as Muriel Donnelly, racist, retired working class pensioner facing a six-month wait in the British healthcare system for a new hip, and Celia Imrie and the appropriately named Ronald Pickup as Madge Hardcastle and Norman Cousins, two unrelated people both looking for some romance. Once all those storylines have been briskly established, we’re off to India.
Director John Madden, best known for the Oscar winner Shakespeare in Love, strikes the right note in how he chooses to represent India to his audience. In a somewhat contrived plot point (the cancellation of their onward flight to Jaipur), the group is suddenly thrust out of the cool shiny cocoon of Delhi airport’s new terminal and into The Real India. (They couldn’t have waited for the next flight?) Led by Graham (Tom Wilkinson), they make their way onto a bus and then various “tuktuks” to the hotel.
(I know this will seem picky, but I thought that term was used in Thailand; “autorickshaw” or “auto” are what I’ve always heard during my time in India, but maybe this is some south – north nuance I’ve yet to learn…)
Through the septet’s eyes we see the throngs of people and the traffic, and all that is so fascinating to us foreigners as we navigate the streets of any Indian city or town: the quotidian sights of a family of four (or more!) heading to work and school on a motorbike, the horse-drawn (or camel-drawn) cart merging into the fray, women in vibrant-hued saris and salwar kameez, and the multiple, simultaneous vignettes happening all around. On my first few times in Madras and Bombay I was forever shooting long stretches of film as the driver took me from point A to point B, trying – futilely – to capture all that was going on.
When the group arrives at the hotel Dev Patel comes scampering breathlessly across the rooftops to greet them. Like his new guests he too is striking out to try something new and risky – in his case, making a go of running a business at this shambolic hotel he inherited, which he believes will garner him enough credibility with his mother (the wonderful Lilette Dubey) to be able to then seek her approval of his Muslim, middle class girlfriend Sunaina (Tena Desae).
“I want the hotel in the brochure,” Penelope Wilton’s Mrs. Ainslie demands of Patel, noting the difference between the images she saw online in England and the reality before her eyes, but to no avail. Some of the residents embrace their new home early on, others warm more slowly to India, but for Wilton’s character, each day makes her that much more brittle and depressed. Her husband (Nighy) on the other hand, sallies forth to explore every day with those jaunty movements that fans of the actor will recall from him hilarious portrayal of an aging rocker in Love Actually. Meanwhile Evelyn has taken to blogging about her experiences, which serves as running monologue of the group’s progress and adaptation.
Graham, the high court judge (the only character not present in Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things, on which the film is based) is the only one of the group with any prior experience of India, and no sooner do they arrive in Rajasthan, than he’s off every day on some secret mission, much to the puzzlement of his neighbors. As the ice melts among the seven, he chooses to reveal to Evelyn (Judy Dench) and Douglas (Bill Nighy) what it is that has been haunting him since his youth there.
Maggie Smith’s Muriel is shocking in her blatant zenophobia (watching an Afro-English doctor rinsing his hands in the hospital in London she says to a nurse “He can wash all he wants, that black’s not coming off”), and she tries to carry all she can from home (Hobnob biscuits, and in a perfect Newcastle coals turn, tea and pickle) so she can avoid eating Indian food while she convalesces from her surgery. Quite far into the story we learn she has more in common with one of the servants than she, or we, might have expected.
The two romantically inclined members of the group, Madge and Norman, bring a sunny determination to their pursuits, and forge on ahead, not allowing the march of time to get them down. Which actually sums up nicely the mantra of the film: it’s never too late to try something new and take a chance.
Without being patronizing, Madden gives us a humorous and affectionate look at the lives of these seven people “in their golden years”, and how they deal with the problems they are facing. Given the excess of films geared to a much younger demographic, I suppose it was a rather daring move on his part, even with the famous cast, though I shouldn’t underestimate the halo effect of having two cast members from Downton Abbey onboard.
See it or skip it?
See it! This charming film has warmth and heart and leaves you with hope. It’s what I would classify as a perfect “Sunday night movie” – that is, nothing that is too bleak or morose to see before the start of the work week, quite the contrary.
I look forward to watching it again. Given what a great raconteur John Madden is, I do hope he and at least some of the cast members will do a commentary track for the DVD.
And to judge by the comments from journos at the recent meet-and-greet in NYC with the cast (more on that next), I suspect BEMH will fare better than Slumdog Millionaire when it lands in the subcontinent. As one Indian woman opined to a non-Indian man “Slumdog exploited the poverty in India, this film doesn’t do that.”