Review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a film giving some much-needed attention to an older demographic of moviegoers. And yet, while its demo-audience skews over 50, there is nothing about this film that can’t be enjoyed by a 21-year-old man. It’s a funny comedy but it’s not vulgar. It’s got a stunning cast that disproves any notion that women over 50 can’t sell a movie. It’s gorgeous to look at, taking advantage of its beautiful Indian geography. It’s an absolutely delightful film.

Directed by John Madden — the director of Shakespeare in Love who has quite a knack for making proper comedies with lavish visuals and excellent casts — The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel tells the story of a group of elderly English citizens who retire to India.

There’s Evelyn (Judi Dench), a recently widowed housewife forced to make decisions on her own for the first time in 40 years, Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a judge who was born in India and seeks to rediscover the vigour of a lost youth, Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton), an unhappily married couple who have no prospects at home, Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Madge (Celia Imrie), a would-be bachelor and bachelorette who want to find companionship, and Muriel (Maggie Smith), a bigoted old maid who needs a knee replacement, but can’t afford the money and time it’ll take to get in England.

All of these individuals find themselves lured to the promise of a new life in Jaipur, India at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Of course, the hotel is not what they expected, and the challenges of their new life in India combined with their encroaching mortality forces the characters to face the reality of their existence, and accept or reject life’s terms.

The hotel is run by the energetic and naïve Sonny Kapur (Dev Patel). Patel thrives in this role that could’ve easily been played as cheap caricature and comedic relief, showing off his acting prowess previously displayed in Slumdog Millionaire, but also revealing some impressive comic skills. The role is smartly written and allowed its own arc, not merely serving the needs of the English characters’ stories. He also gives the film a much needed insider perspective.

The beauty of a film like this is that it has all the components of a crowd-pleaser, and yet transcends any notions of it being merely that and limiting itself to empty entertainment. It actually takes risks and surprises in its storytelling, something I found quite impressive as the film progressed, especially considering that I walked into the theatre thinking I knew exactly how the story would progress. Each character is allowed to develop and grow. The result is that no character feels unrealistic or underwritten. The acting by the fantastic cast merely takes the strong writing to another level. Graham’s story arc, in particular, was unexpected and has a profound resolution.

Perhaps the film glosses over its inevitable colonial implications and perhaps it is too framed from the viewpoint of a tourist, but these are nitpicks and distractions from the overall purpose of the film, which is to highlight the challenge of growing old. It’s only in the West that elderly citizens are conveniently swept to the margins and forgotten about. What reason do these individuals have to change and adapt to new experiences when their society has abandoned them?

The challenge for them is the embrace their age, their experiences, and to take risks and face change as boldly as they can.

There’s some beautiful narration by Judi Dench near the end of the film that nicely sums up this challenge of old age, that can be applied to both the world of Hollywood actors and the mundane existence of normal people. I would transcribe it here, but I don’t want to take away the joy of hearing it spoken elegantly for the first time.

In fact, I don’t want to take away any of the joy of this film. The most I can do is to encourage you to go see it. It has a great cast. It is gorgeously shot in a beautiful environment. It will delight. It will surprise. It will prove that comedies need not be shallow, vulgar and young, but can actually have wit and wisdom amid the humour. There is a vibrancy to this film that no comedy starring 20-somethings of the past few years is able to match.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)

Directed by John Madden; written by Ol Parker, based off the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach; starring Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie, Dev Patel, Tena Desae, and Maggie Smith.

8 out of 10