On Movies: 'Exotic Marigold Hotel' provides pleasant respite
Low on money, faced with an impoverished old age in costly England and yearning for a draught of the warm south, seven men and women in their 60s and 70s head for India in a pleasant if formulaic film whose message might be, “You’re never too old to grow up.”
In “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” a wonderful cast of veteran British actors is headed by Judi Dench as the recently widowed Evelyn, who is forced to sell her London flat to pay off the massive debts assembled by her late, impecunious husband. Fearful for her future, she responds to an advertisement for inexpensive and elegant retirement living at a luxurious old hotel in Jaipur, India.
En route to India, Evelyn meets six fellow pilgrims:
Retired judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson). He is gay, although, as he says ruefully, “recently more in theory than in practice.”
Racist, emotionally pinched Muriel (Maggie Smith), who needs a hip replacement and doesn’t want to add her name to the long waiting list at the National Health. Meanwhile, she gets about in a wheelchair, which comes to symbolize her emotional captivity.
Sarcastic snob Jean (Penelope Wilton) and her long-suffering, henpecked husband Douglas (Bill Nighy); would-be Casanova Norman (Ronald Pickup), who lies about his age to dating services,and love-hungry spinster Madge (Celia Imrie).
When the seven travelers, after considerable difficulty with various local inefficiencies, reach the hotel, they discover the meandering old dump is falling apart. But they are greeted with boundless enthusiasm by the ebullient young manager, who inherited the hotel from his father, and is called “Sonny,” usually a bad sign for someone in charge.
Sonny is played by Dev Patel, who demonstrated in “Slumdog Millionaire” that he does boundless enthusiasm well. His reality-ignoring spiel about how wonderful life will be at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is topped off with the excited declaration that “I have a dream to outsource old age.”
Lured less by Sonny’s spiel than by financial and logistical concerns, the seven visitors reluctantly agree to stay and, as the hotel slowly improves, most of them come to at least tolerate the life they have chosen. They even venture into the crowded streets of Jaipur, although director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) tends to focus his cameras on colorful market scenes rather than the drabness of poverty.
The most interesting and fully developed characters are Dench’s Evelyn, who narrates the story in a voiceover and adapts quickly to the new situation, and Wilkinson’s Graham, who spent his boyhood in India and is not afraid to plunge into the chaotic and pungent street life of Jaipur.
Graham has a secret, one he reveals to Evelyn in a quiet moment. As a teenager, he was in love with an Indian boy, and when their affair was discovered, he left India in disgrace, at least in his mind. He has spent his life haunted by shame for deserting his friend. Graham trepidatious search for his long-lost lover forms the spine of the main narrative, and the concluding scenes of the search are truly touching, with a wistful melancholy that is, at the same time, emotionally rewarding.
There is also an almost obligatory sub-plot of ongoing young love. Dev wants to marry a beautiful, bright young woman who works at a vast call center, but his mother has other plans – an arranged marriage with a Delhi girl of the right family.
The stories of all the characters, young and old, play out in the course of the movie. We even come to appreciate why wheelchair-bound Muriel is such an apparent misanthrope. There are few surprises, but “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” tells its familiar story with warmth, and it’s hard to lose with this remarkable cast.
Most of the characters will discover new things about themselves and about the world, and the moral is clear: Change can be good, particular if you’re old and set in your ways.
Opens Friday May 11