Friday, May 11, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: Make a reservation

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor and fleeting profanity 
By Derrick Bang 

Change can be difficult — sometimes heartbreaking — even when embraced willingly.

It becomes considerably worse when change is forced upon us.

Evelyn (Judi Dench, left) and Madge (Celia Imrie) bravely embrace the hustle
and bustle of Jaipur, the city where they've elected to spend their "golden years."
Some of their companions, back at the self-professed Best Exotic Marigold
Hotel, lack this adventurous spirit ... which, obviously, is their loss.
During the prologue to director John Madden’s thoroughly charming The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, we meet seven individuals who fear they’ve reached that point in their lives — “of a certain age,” as the fashionably polite suggest — when society deems them irrelevant. Worse yet, all these folks are further burdened by their own personal baggage, in some cases a soul-crushing weight that has dragged them down for decades.

Recently widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench) has just learned, to her humiliation, that her husband left her financially stranded and — by relegating her to the role of “companion” — unable to fend for herself. Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a High Court judge, finally has let cynicism overrule compassionate objectivity. Muriel (Maggie Smith), a fearful, reflexive xenophobe, needs hip replacement surgery.

Singletons Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup), refusing to gracefully accept their advanced years, continue to seek sexual thrills like thirtysomething sybarites. Tragically, marital bliss died long ago for Jean (Penelope Wilton) and Douglas (Bill Nighy); now she only snipes at him, while he patiently endures.

Fans of British cinema already realize they need read no further; with a cast like this, how could Madden’s adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s These Foolish Things — screenplay by Ol Parker — miss?

It doesn’t, of course. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a gentle reminder that life doesn’t stop at 60; that new experiences are to be embraced, not avoided; that fate truly does reward the brave; and that it’s never too late to make new friends or find new lovers.

Through chance, serendipity and design — and, in Muriel’s case, medical necessity (no waiting time for her surgery) — all these retirees find themselves on the same plane to India, responding to the skillfully worded promise of colorful brochures and come-hither Internet sites extolling the luxurious accommodations of Jaipur’s Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

But the cacophonous reality is overwhelming; rather than a colorful land of enchantment and captivating tradition, India seems — to our newcomers — noisy, overcrowded and not quite finished ... much like the hotel itself. Their new “retirement palace” isn’t quite ready for prime time, despite the assurances of its enthusiastic young owner, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), who inherited the once-sophisticated building from his equally idealistic father. Alas, Dad’s grandiose plans for the structure never quite gelled.

Ubiquitous Western amenities are spotty at best — water, electricity, phones and even doors for privacy — and improvements appear to have stalled, despite Sonny’s insistence that idled workers will return to the job “soon.” Then, too, India itself is full of contrasts: intoxicating and intimidating, traditional and modern, beautiful and strange.

Graham, who spent his childhood in India, lacks the naïve expectations that paralyze some of his companions; he seems right at home ... and yet, somehow not so. Each of these characters is on a mission of discovery; Graham’s quest is perhaps more tangible. Where, precisely, does he go every day?

Evelyn becomes our narrative chaperone, her thoughts spoken aloud as she records her hopes and experiences in a blog that she wonders if her adult children, back in England, will bother to read. But she’s willing to brave Jaipur’s teeming delights, at least, as is Douglas, quickly transfixed by his visits to temples and marketplaces.

But Douglas cannot get his wife to budge; Jean defiantly, angrily parks herself in the hotel courtyard each day, pretending to read while developing far too much interest in Graham. Muriel, similarly, refuses to even try the local cuisine, content instead to nibble on the packs of British biscuits and bottles of pickles that weighted down her luggage.

Norman and Madge, seeking love with the giddy expectation of oversexed teenagers, become members of a posh local club ... where they bump into each other, both having attempted a pose of aristocratic sophistication, in the hopes of attracting company.

Fish-out-of-water sagas are ripe for humor, and Parker’s well-constructed script is laden with hilariously frosty one-liners, many of them — particularly those of a sexual nature — coming from Madge. Imrie has impeccable comic timing, with her bluest remarks at odds with the deceptively bland expression she uses to disarm her companions.

This clever, shrewdly perceptive screenplay should make a name for Parker, until this point known only for writing and directing 2005’s gender-bending romantic comedy, Imagine Me & You (a film I clearly must catch up with). I don’t know where Parker has been hiding for the past seven years, but a script this sharp is worth the wait.

The characters are richly portrayed, as well: no surprise, given a cast this talented. Our heart aches for Nighy’s Douglas, a glass-half-full guy forever trying to cheer up and encourage a wife who has become bitter, spiteful and downright cruel. We see the pain in Nighy’s eyes: Douglas, ever the loyal husband, simply can’t bring himself to respond in kind. He’s not built that way.

All of which makes his growing interest in Evelyn — completely reciprocated — that much more hopeless and frustrating. Douglas and Evelyn sense, in each other, true kindred spirits: explorers, optimists, romantics ... all the “fun stuff” that must have drawn Douglas to his wife, years back, but now has turned to ash.

Muriel, cocooned in her wheelchair like a frightened bird, barely speaks to anybody ... and yet curiosity eventually prompts her to acknowledge the silent kindness of the hotel’s lower-caste Indian housekeeper. It turns out — Moggach’s narrative really is quite clever — that Muriel and this young woman have something in common, which becomes the bridge by which Muriel comes to terms with her new surroundings.

And once Maggie Smith is allowed to open up, let’s just say that she darn near runs away with the film: no small accomplishment, in the company of so many other scene-stealers.

The interpersonal melodrama isn’t confined to these British ex-pats. Sonny is deeply, madly, passionately in love with Sunaina (Tena Desae), a free-spirited, 21st century young woman whose “loose behavior” scandalizes the young man’s traditional mother (Lillete Dubey). Mom insists that her son should embrace the ages-old custom of an arranged marriage.

Patel, well remembered as the star of Slumdog Millionaire, plays Sonny as a giddy, hyper-enthusiastic dreamer: a breathless bundle of energy who wields silver-tongued platitudes with the skill of a circus ringmaster (and one almost expects sawdust on the floors of his dilapidated hotel rooms). Sonny’s “grand scheme” — outsourcing British retirement to India — is both audacious and hilarious, much like the young man himself.

And despite being in over his head, at all times, he lives by a mantra — the film’s signature line — that we’d all do well do embrace: “Things always work out in the end ... and if they haven’t worked out yet, it’s not the end.”

Truly, that’s as wise as the similarly sage theatrical observation, from Shakespeare in Love, that things always “turn out well” ... even though nobody knows why. (Madden also directed that charmer, which I guess isn’t a surprise.)

The filmmakers skillfully walk a delicate line, poking gentle fun at things Indian — as experienced by these British newcomers — while never resorting to cruel judgment or unkind stereotypes. The hustle and bustle of sun-baked Jaipur never overwhelms the pride and solicitous kindness of the city’s people, regardless of their social status; this view may be somewhat idealistic, but that’s in keeping with the positive outlook that Evelyn, Graham and Norman embrace immediately, and which eventually comes to the others (well ... most of them, anyway).

The location footage is rich and vibrant, with cinematographer Ben Davis alternating the city’s lively brightness with the hotel’s somewhat muted color palette. Production designer Alan MacDonald does marvelous work with the primary setting, actually Ravla Khempur, a royal palace turned equestrian hotel found in the tiny village of Khempur, just outside the lake district of Udaipur. The building itself feels magical, as if its hidden treasures merely wait to be revealed to those with the proper imaginative spirit.

The same can be said of this film, replete with quiet delights and the sharply etched observation that life — with its alternating joys and tragedies — only leaves us behind if we let it.

I fear that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel will be swallowed up, in this country, by its proximity to the action franchises that are marking the early arrival of cinema’s noisy summer. That would be a shame; this gentle, perceptive character study deserves the widest possible exposure.


  1. Great review of a great film!!!!!! Thank you

  2. I was curious about this one. I think I'll go see it now.

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