The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Movie) written by Ol Parker (screenplay) and Deborah Moggach (novel); directed
by John Madden; starring: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Dev Patel, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie, Penelope
Seven elderly Brits travel to India, each of them for his or her own reasons. They all end up at a ramshackle hotel in
Jaipur. Not too surprisingly, they encounter lots of cultural confusion, misunderstanding and slapstick comedy. Certainly
not a bad premise for a movie. But I’d seen the previews so often and the comic bits had become so familiar that I had
to wonder whether there was anything left worth seeing.
Quite a lot, as it turns out. Almost too much, in fact. Each of the travellers comes to India with considerable personal
baggage (as opposed to the Samsonite kind). So we’re following several different, if inter-connected, personal "journeys."
Each person’s story is packed with drama, every actor has great moments where his or her truth comes out in marvellously
theatrical speeches. The story-telling is very efficient: even before the opening credits, each character’s situation
is set very effectively in brief scenes. If the antics wear a bit thin at times that could be because: a) some of the
tales aren’t quite as engaging as others; or b) director John Madden, although well-known for classy movies like Shakespeare
in Love and Mrs Brown, may not have quite the skill of Robert Altman when it comes to juggling multiple story lines.
But there are lots of great moments to enjoy. For me, one of the highlights is when Tom Wilkinson, playing a retired judge,
talks to a widow, played by Judi Dench, about the sad secret that brings him to India. Mr. Wilkinson’s acting in this
scene is phenomenal. It’s one of those moments where you suddenly see a personality revealed in an actor that you never
saw in that actor before. The truth of it knocks you back a few paces.
Given that the movie’s a showcase for some of the aristocracy of British acting, Mr. Wilkinson doesn’t hog
the show. Dame Judi, as a widow, makes a lovely screen presence, as always. We’re hearing about it all more
or less in her voice-over narration as she blogs about the adventure to her family back home. Technically speaking, we could
have dispensed with the narration but Dame Judi’s voice does help to establish a kindly, mellow tone that permeates
the movie. Bill Nighy earns great sympathy as a husband trying to maintain a cheerful loyalty while plagued by a really cantankerous
wife. In the role of the wife, however, Penelope Wilton is too much. It’s partly a question of the writing and partly
of the acting: nobody could be that awful 24/7. A character who’s less interesting than the others is the randy geezer
played by Ronald Pickup. The role seems to be just an excuse for lots of silly jokes about seniors and sex. Same could be
said for Celia Imrie’s role as a divorcée. Maggie Smith is obviously having a ball
playing up the role of a cranky racist who’s almost too awful to believed but, given that we’re dealing with Dame
Maggie, you can be sure that this old gal has a few winning tricks up her sleeve.
When it comes to acting, Dev Patel, in the role of Sonny, the young owner/manager of the dilapidated hotel, is in a class
of his own. If we hadn’t already seen him in Slumdog Millionaire, we might think his frenetic, over-the-top style
was typical of somebody who’d just been discovered in Bollywood. But there’s something so appealing about the
character that you’ve got to go along with him. Not least of his attractions is his flair for idiosyncratic manipulation
of the English language, featuring, among other things, the layering on of "ly" adverbs, as in: "Yes, surely, absolutely,
certainly." (Not an exact quote.) The poor guy is saddled with the burden of his failing establishment, a troubled romance
and a domineering mother. But his resilience enables him to spin the worst disasters so that they end up sounding like victories.
Most of Sonny’s problems, however, are tied up too neatly. In one case, it’s a turbanned servant who emerges
from the background as a kind of deus ex machina to untie a particular knot. That’s symptomatic of the major
flaw of the movie: solutions to all the crises are too pat. You never feel you’re being taken into daring new territory
in the exploration of human affairs. Still, nuggets of wisdom do crop up, as for instance, the observation that the Indian
people look on life as a privilege, not a right. And in spite of lots of recycled jokes, there’s something irresistible
about riding along with these oldsters on their odd odyssey. The same could be said for finding yourself in a sizeable movie
audience that includes very few viewers under seventy years old. Who could begrudge these seniors the vicarious pleasure of
a romp like this with their peers?
Capsule Comment: More fun than it has any right to be.