May 17, 2012|
(UK) Drama/Comedy. Directed by John Madden. Starring Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie. Category IIA. 124 minutes. Opens May 17.
If you don’t think a tale of seven British elderlies outsourcing their retirement to India is worthy of your time and attention, think again—this time, with Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy in mind. “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” a feel-good dramedy by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love” and “The Debt”), is the opposite cinematic exercise of “Dark Shadows”: one that doesn’t sound all that exciting on paper, but is surprisingly made charming and funny by its proficient helmer and an impeccable ensemble. Despite the admittedly predictable story and a couple of characterization clichés, the film—adapted by Ol Parker from Deborah Moggach’s novel “These Foolish Things”—will not only satisfy the 50-or-above demographic but will also be a crowd-pleaser for almost every age group.
A long prelude pieces up a vivid collage of the protagonists that allows the audience to know just enough about each one of them. Evelyn (Dench) is a recently widowed housewife forced to sell her home to pay off the huge debts left by her beloved husband. Muriel (Smith), a former housekeeper and life-long xenophobic, is advised to get her hip-replacement surgery done in India because it’s cheaper and more immediate than what her homeland’s healthcare system can provide. Easy-going Nicholas (Nighy) and his insufferably snobby wife Jean (Penelope Wilton) have just sunk their life savings into their daughter’s failed internet startup. Respected high-court judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson) resigns from his uptight job for a change of scenery. Rounding out the parade are frisky granny Madge (Celia Imrie) and randy geezer Norman (Ronald Pickup), two singletons looking for love (and, in Norman’s case, sex).
Attracted by an ad for the luxurious titular resort, proclaiming that it’s the top spot “for the elderly and beautiful,” all the above travel to Jaipur, India—only to find the swanky palace they expected fell into disrepair many years ago. Running the dilapidated place is Sonny (“Slumdog Millionaire’s” Dev Patel), an enthusiastic local youth with a disorganized management style, a hot girlfriend and an overbearing mother. From here, the residents adapt to the exotic surroundings in their own ways, crossing paths with one another. Adventurers Evelyn and Nicholas set out to explore the city and become good friends; Madge and Norman delve into the high-end dating scene pretending to be British royals. Muriel, however, hates everyone and wants to hop the first plane home. Her bigotry, however, is only rivaled by Jean’s. A cloud of negativity, Jean rejects anything unfamiliar, which leads to a big quarrel with Nicholas.
The mix of characters may be formulaic, but fortunately, the bevy of seasoned veterans presents a gallery of exceptional portraits. Among them, the ever-graceful Dench provides the central voice of the film through the blog Evelyn keeps, and a nuanced Wilkinson imbues the story with moving emotion and a soulful touch of melancholy. Having spent his childhood in Jaipur, Graham is here on a long-delayed trip to make peace with his regretful past. However, compared to the other characters, Muriel—whose transition from an unapologetic racist to a tolerant darling comes as abrupt—is a character even the mighty Smith can’t make believable.
The scribe and director seamlessly interweave all the subplots into one tasty stew, spiced up by Thomas Newman’s beautiful, region-appropriate score. Ben Davis’s energized cinematography playfully frames the chaotic yet stunning northern Indian scenery. Here, our protagonists encounter frightening traffic, dirty streets and bizarre food—but they also find a hectic vigor, shimmering colors and a lively ambience with which bleak old Blighty cannot compare. The nicely paced picture remains optimistic and heartwarming till the end, and successfully delivers the core message that it’s never too late to explore, to step out of your comfort zone and to find yourself. It’s a little too positive for young moviegoers, I know, but in the most lovely way—you see, the very cynic writing this review melted into a puddle of smiles when she watched it.