Directed by: John Madden
Starring: Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Maggie Smith, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie, Dev Patel
Rated: PG-13 for sexual content and language
There’s something uniquely charming to American sensibilities about older British folks. Add to that innate charm an exotic destination (India), a timely topic (outsourcing), and a cast of brilliant character actors, and you are set. “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” takes things one step further by going beyond its ingredients to be a deeply human film. Yes, it’s charming, heartwarming , and funny, but it sneaks in piercing looks at our common humanity and at life itself.
The film follows seven retirees from their homes in Britain to their new home in Udaipur, India. Evelyn (Judi Dench) spent her marriage trusting everything to her husband, but now that he’s gone, she finds she’s flat broke and barely knows herself. Graham (Tom Wilkinson) grew up in India but was sent to the UK for university, and now wants to go back and track down his long-lost first love. Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton) invested everything in their daughter’s internet startup and now can’t afford a decent retirement anywhere except overseas — a prospect the adventurous Douglas relishes but the negative, angry Jean dreads. Muriel (Maggie Smith) is staunchly racist, but needs a hip replacement she can pay for more than she needs it to be done by a white surgeon. Madge (Celia Imrie) is on the prowl for a new husband. Norma (Ronald Pickup) just wants somewhere cheap to stay while he hunts for one-night-stands.
Of course, nothing goes quite as any of them planned it. The hotel is in shambles, for starters, but they allow themselves to convinced into staying by the relentlessly enthusiastic optimism of Sonny (Dev Patel), a son of the late owner. He wants to create a place so beautiful and perfect that the elderly who live there will simply refuse to die — but he needs to find the money to make it work, and to persuade his family, who own a controlling interest in the property, that he can do it.
Director John Madden handles the intertwining plotlines of the retirees and the locals deftly, juggling them with enough fluidity that nothing feels forced. The characters are all challenged to grow in various ways, to figure out what they really want from life and then step up and make it happen. Part of the film’s charm is that this is true of all the characters, regardless of age. Sonny is much younger than his clients, but that doesn’t make them that much wiser when it comes to that most precious thing: self-knowledge. The characters all grow, but some in directions you may not expect.
India itself is another character in the film, and Madden wisely neither romanticizes nor demonizes it. Like the people in the film, it simply is what it is. We see the country in large part through the eyes of the British retirees, but they have such varying points of view that it’s like getting a little bit of everything. There’s color and squalor, chaos and stillness, beauty and ugliness all mixed in together.
“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” dances right up to the edge of sickeningly sweet, but never goes over it — there’s too much dry British humor here for that, and let us be grateful. If you are someone who enjoys movies about people and places, about humanity, about life, do not miss this.