Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Room and Board: THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL

In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a group of elderly British citizens find their way to what is advertised as an affordable luxury retirement apartment complex in Jaipur, India. When they get there, they find the place is a bit run down and not much at all as they expected. But, putting on their stiff upper lips and summoning up a spirit of adventure, they decide to make the best of it. What follows is a mild culture clash film that threatens to be gently condescending, but thankfully never quite gets there. Instead, it develops into a lovely little comic drama with a beautiful travelogue backdrop. It may seem like a loose, episodic thing, but that’s only because it is. It all snaps together quite nicely in the end, though, and as we spend time with the various characters, following the ways in which they acclimate, or not, to their new surroundings, the considerable talents of the venerable actors involved creates a good deal of dramatic interest.

The seniors staying at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly & Beautiful are a disparate bunch. There’s an old married couple (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton), freshly retired and eager to put their meager pension to something more than an apartment with guardrails and a medical alert box in the corner. There’s a freshly widowed woman (Judi Dench) who wants the chance to open her mind to new experiences after many years in a marriage wherein much was kept from her. There’s a man (Ronald Pickup) who is looking for new women to try wooing and a woman (Celia Imrie) who thinks she can snag one more wealthy husband before her time’s up. (They don’t much care for each other, which is a welcome surprise.) There’s a retired judge (Tom Wilkinson) who grew up in India and is eager to find his long-lost first love. And, finally, there’s a crotchety, casually xenophobic, old woman (Maggie Smith) who is only on this journey for a cheap hip replacement.

These wonderful actors imbue their characters with such warmth and likability that it’s easy to get drawn into their individual plotlines. These people begin and end relationships, have squabbles amongst one another, complain about accommodations, make new friends, enjoy or reject the local cuisine, and come to appreciate (or not appreciate) their surroundings. They find work, find hope, and find companionship. They try new things. It’s all very sweet and charming with flashes of real emotional beauty and low-key humor. These are actors who can command such attention in dramatic roles, who could play Shakespeare with the best of them because they are amongst the best of them, and they play this mix of small-scale drama and gentle humor with incredible sincerity and emotional engagement. They’re such naturally watchable and likable screen presences that these quickly become characters that are easy to spend two hours with.

My favorite storyline, however, belongs to the irrepressibly optimistic manger of the hotel, played with continual charm by Dev Patel. He’s unflappable – when confronted about the fact that his hotel is not exactly as advertised he smiles and says that his brochures merely advertise the future – but he has tremendous unrest bubbling up underneath. His mother (Lillete Dubey) comes by, turning up her nose at his attempts to fix the crumbling failed business his father left behind. She says she’s simply here to visit her favorite son. When he expresses doubt she admits, “Okay, my second favorite son.” She’s here looking to close the hotel and take her son back to live with her while she finds a more suitable match for marriage than the gorgeous call-center employee (Tena Desae) he’s been seeing. Patel inhabits his character’s half-thwarted romantic and business longings within a personality that’s so relentlessly rosy. He’s stuck halfway between the life he has and the life he wants, but he’s confident he’ll get there.

Director John Madden, working from a screenplay by Ol Parker that is based on the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach, keeps things moving along quite nicely. We end up spending just enough time with each character, or combination of characters, before moving on to the next one and the next one before we’re back again. He trusts his actors are up to their tasks and hangs back. He’s never been a pushy or showy director, his films’ levels of quality rising and falling with the level of the scripts and casts he’s worked with. Here, he has a good script and a great cast to which he brings solid, glossy production value. It’s simply an attractive location shoot of a film that makes good use of the sights and sounds around its plot. I suspect that this story of these nice older people finding new experiences in a new location reinvigorating and relaxing, especially a story that’s so well-photographed and that so gently puts across its message of multicultural open-mindedness, could drive tourism to India for many years to come. It’s just a shame that, upon booking a trip, you couldn’t specifically request a charming British thespian as a travelling companion.

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