Seven British seniors leave the familiarity of their homeland to immigrate to India. Some are lured by the ads for 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel', offering an oasis for elderly inhabitants. Some are lured by memories of their youth. Some make the journey due to necessity.
Written by Ol Parker and directed by John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love", "The Debt"), "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" features seven of the finest British actors working today in an amusing, insightful and only occasionally, predictable look at how their lives are changed by their move to the exotic former colony.
Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) decides to make the move when her husband passes away leaving a mountain of debt. Her sons are trying to get her to move in with them, but Evelyn is too independent for that. Forced to sell the house and with little money, she spots an online ad for the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and decides to move. Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) can no longer stand the thought of living in England and leaves for the airport directly from his retirement party at the college where he teaches law. He is moving to India for an entirely different reason; as a young boy, his family lived in the area and he is looking up an old acquaintance. Douglas and Jean Ainslie (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) find they are now retired and have limited funds due to an ill-advised investment in their daughter's internet company. Rather than spend their golden years in a boxy flat designed for the elderly, complete with a panic button, Douglas convinces Jean that they should move to India. Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), a bigoted old woman, finds she needs a hip replacement. Rather than spend six months or longer waiting for her name to come up on the National Health Service waiting list, she agrees to go to India for the surgery. Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) is a lech who finds his limited resources will go further in India as he tries to find an eligible, rich widower. Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) is basically the female equivalent of Norman, a woman who is using her limited resources to catch a rich widower. The British citizens meet at the airport and become traveling companions. Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel, "Slumdog Millionaire") greets his new guests with open arms. He is thrilled because they are his first guests and promise an income as he continues to prepare the hotel his deceased father bought for the guests. One day, he will be able to make it as nice as the brochure and website promise. He can now make his father's dream a reality, if only his older, more successful brothers and his mother would not interfere. The Brits find things are less than ready, less than hospitable. Some of them adapt and learn to enjoy their new lives. Some have more trouble.
When you have this many characters in a film, it is often difficult for any of them to appear real or human. Often, they have one or two traits, one or two quirks and this is all the filmmakers are able to give them, so they become cartoon characters. "The Best Exotic…" should be applauded because it is much more successful, giving more of the characters real complexity. But a few of the characters do fall short.
When your cast includes Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson, you would expect the film to be above the norm. And "The Best Exotic…" delivers. In fact, the characters played by these actors are the best of the bunch.
Penelope Wilton's Jean is a bit too shrewish throughout, giving her character the least interesting growth. Because of this, she also makes Douglas (Nighy) the most predictable. But they have a nice, somewhat unexpected, moment towards the end of the film.
Ronald Pickup's Norman and Celia Imrie's Madge are the most predictable and seem to be included for comic relief. Interestingly, I read that Peter O'Toole and Julie Christie were originally going to play these roles. I'm not sure why they dropped out. Strangely, I get the feeling Pickup and Imrie are playing these characters as written. What the actors are able to impart on the characters doesn't seem to come through as it does with the other actors. I can't exactly pinpoint why this is, but it feels like they don't bring anything of their own to the characters.
Dench is possibly the most complicated character. As Evelyn makes the journey, she states to more than one person she has never been outside of England and her two grown sons seem to regard this decision to move as a minor moment of indiscretion. When she arrives in India, you see moments of fear, excitement and understanding flash through her face at various times. But Evelyn's situation is such that she needs to get a job and this provides some nice moments, a nice circle of closure.
Dench is such a great actress and I am more used to watching her portray powerful, strong women. It is nice to watch her play a woman who is more down-to-earth, more vulnerable. Evelyn provides proof of Dench's range; Evelyn is strong - she would have to be to make this move and embrace it – but she is also vulnerable and open to all the new country has to offer.
Tom Wilkinson plays Graham, perhaps the most experienced of the group of travelers. Given he grew up in the country; the others turn to him for advice and guidance. Graham has spent the majority of his life living in a way that didn't make him happy. As soon as he retires, the very minute, he decides to leave for the country and look up an old acquaintance.
Because the other travelers depend on him, they look at him as an authority figure and more than one of the women seem to develop an attachment to him.
Maggie Smith plays Muriel, a former housekeeper who is now living the remainder of her life in a small flat with nothing to do. Deeply bigoted, she is torn between waiting six or more months for her surgery in London, or moving to India and having the surgery almost immediately. The pain wins over her fear of people with brown skin and she moves to a very scary place and seems to regard everything with great hostility.
It is a testament to the actress that she manages to bring the most complete character growth to her character; some key interactions lead her to begin to change, yet the changes seem natural and realistic.
Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton play Douglas and Jean. They are forced to move because they simply can't afford to live in England until their investment in their daughter's internet company comes through. If it ever does. Douglas seems more willing to live the adventure. Maybe resigned is a better word. Jean seems completely reluctant to give up the style of life she has become accustomed to in England. Through the course of the film, Jean and Douglas are perhaps the most predictable of the group. But both actors manage to make the characters interesting and mildly surprising in believable ways.
Dev Patel, so memorable in "Slumdog Millionaire" and the BBC America series "Skins", is problematic. He runs around, waving his hands, talking in a thick Indian accent and he appears to be more similar to Apu, the animated character from "The Simpsons", than a real human being. He pines for a beautiful girl who works at a local telephone call center, but her brother doesn't approve of him. And his mother arrives just as he re-opens the hotel and tells him he has to close and return home and work for his more successful brothers. His romantic shenanigans are the main reason for this story and they appear too slapstick and comedic to make us really feel the romance.
John Madden has created a film that is uneven, providing characters that are predictable alongside other characters who are interesting and believable, in a story that manages to grasp our attention. The different characters are designed to move you, make you laugh, make you cry, make you feel the romance and love. Most of the time, these characters work.
It is definitely a film worth watching just for the performances of the majority of the leads.