REVIEW: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel [2012]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 124 minutes | Release Date: February 24th, 2012 (UK)
Studio: 20th Century Fox / Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director(s): John Madden
Writer(s): Ol Parker / Deborah Moggach (novel)

“Top of the mountain”

It’s a rare success to see a film as great as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel excel because of its leading cast of seniors. Since this bunch of peerless British performers so often shine in the background, we forget how good they really are. An inspired group, they portray Deborah Moggach‘s odd mix of retirees with an authenticity that brings her novel These Foolish Things to life inside the vibrant hustle and bustle of its Indian locale. Whether looking for new love, lost love, companionship, an escape from reality, or a plain and simple purpose, each finds meaning in a country that—as Tom Wilkinson‘s Graham expounds—treats life as a gift, not a right. It’s an apt description and exactly the catalyst necessary to turn their troublesome golden years into a renaissance.

In a very disparate work from his last, The Debt, British director John Madden has crafted an ensemble dramedy that retains the strength of character and humanism he’s been known to tackle since his Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love. A nuanced piece from front to back, each of the seven transplants possesses equal amounts of trepidation and excitement in their decision to uproot to a foreign land. Screenwriter Ol Parker balances everyone perfectly to make sure no one overshadows the rest and even finds time to do their exuberant lunatic of a caretaker Sonny (Dev Patel) justice considering his young man is at a crossroads too. Friendships form as preconceptions melt away and life’s fervor is reborn inside the brand new culture awaiting their acceptance.

While containing lighthearted comedy, the laughs are genuine and often due to stellar acting and superb fish-out-of-water circumstances. Reuniting Shaun’s parents from Shaun of the Dead, Bill Nighy (Douglas) and Penelope Wilton (Jean) bring an odd couple rapport with their financially strapped duo. After sinking his retirement into their daughter’s start-up internet company, the two can either live in an assisted living establishment or seek adventure abroad. It’s Jean’s idea—obvious from Douglas’ malaise—but once they arrive we see him warming to the beauty and mystery while she stalwartly stays in to read a book. Douglas shows a real flair for new experiences and becomes quick chums with Judi Dench‘s Evelyn, a widow off to live independently for the first time in her life.

With them is Muriel (Maggie Smith), a curmudgeonly racist old bat looking for a quick and cheap hip replacement; Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup), separately looking to find a spark of romance without the marginalization of age back in England; and Graham (Wilkinson), returning to the land that raised him before returning to London for an auspicious judicial career away from the love he left behind. Each awakens with differing levels of excitement as they push off into the chaotic streets of Indian life. Secrets are held in a very stereotypically British way and divulged when certain budding friendships earn it. Some assimilate quickly while others never do, but one thing is consistent throughout—their lives will never be the same.

One of the unique pleasures of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is how perfectly the filmmakers capture India. So often the landscape of this third world nation is used in Western cinema to portray poverty, crime, or other forms of squalor—much like Wilton’s Jean’s initial thoughts. But there is so much more to the country than beggars, cutthroat merchants, and an extremely dry heat. Madden lets the tumultuous streets express both the fear and rush of adrenaline each time you get inside a bus, tuk-tuk, or rickshaw; brings a touch of the spirituality of Hinduism with a gorgeously sad funereal scene; and introduces us to Jaipur through its old city’s pink walls as I was during my own visit last year.

We eventually find ourselves aligning with one or more characters as their struggles mirror ours. Life is in a constant state of flux and we all have—and will again—moments where a drastic change of scenery is not only ideal, but also necessary. There is a distinct capacity on behalf of the actors to show a human compassion many are unable to acquire when living inside the constraints of a preplanned life like the ones our society coaches us into following. Dench will inspire you to take a chance and find happiness through writing—on a blog just weeks after learning what wi-fi was no less; Nighy exemplifies what it means to shake oneself from the doldrums of safe and easy; and Wilkinson shows how a prison can be just as powerful and restricting emotionally as it can physically.

Watching Smith’s evolution and growth in her late-70s along with Pickup and Imrie’s refusal to let rejection stop them from being the sexual creatures they are gives a sense of hope where only despair existed. Love dissolves, forms, and overcomes for all, including Patel’s Sonny and the conflict of loving a girl (Tena Desae) who his mother (Lillete Dubey) disapproves. Paths cross and connect while we innocently look on beside the others sitting intently to overhear troubles and possibly help find solutions. Little details in how they interact infer on their progression and no one ever takes a false step despite the plot’s overall lack of any real surprises. But that’s exactly why I loved it so much; its portrayal of life is so smoothly authentic that its lack of twists and turns becomes the best surprise of all.

[1] Judi Dench as “Evelyn,” Tom Wilkinson as “Graham,” and Bill Nighy as “Douglas” star in THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL Photo by Ishika Mohan
[2] Tena Desae as “Sunaina” and Dev Patel as “Sonny” star in THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL Photo by Ishika Mohan
[3] (L-R) Maggie Smith as “Muriel,” Ronald Pickup as “Norman,” Bill Nighy as “Douglas,” Penelope Wilton as “Jean,” Cecile Imrie as “Madge” star in THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL.

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