So I find it utterly appalling that elderly people are left to contend with often surreal care home environments, contemptuous Zimbabwean male nurses, Lifeline alarms manned by indifferent council workers and a constant stream of criticism over their use of public gyms and driving habits.
Whilst some of these issues are self-inflicted – why decide to go for a drive during the morning rush hour? – you can’t help but feel for those elderly people who strive to maintain a semblance of self-sufficiency when it would be so much more helpful to admit that life is sandwiched between two extremes where the assistance of the more able-bodied is essential in performing your daily ablutions.
It’s an issue which is at the heart of John Madden’s wonderfully named Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; a rare cinematic ode to the bewilderment of retirement and old age, and the wonder of India, packed to the rafters with some of the world’s finest actors.
At the head of that cast of legends, of a suitably advanced vintage, is the incomparable Judi Dench who plays Evelyn. Recently widowed, she’s not only contending with the thorny issue of wireless internet connectivity but the mountain of debt that her husband has left behind. Tom Wilkinson plays Graham, a single High Court Judge determined to revisit a singular memory from his past. Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton play a couple out of tune with each other; Maggie Smith is a petulant, unabashed racist awaiting a long overdue replacement hip. Ronald Pickup is Norman, contending with a (very) late life crisis and Celia Imrie plays Madge, a late-developing gold digger.
Unable to come to terms with their rather bleak predicament in England, this motley crew decide to take up the offer of spending their last years at what promises to be the best retirement home in the world – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – located several thousand miles away in Jaipur.
As is usually the case, The Marigold turns out to be far removed from what is depicted in the glossy brochure; rooms haven’t been dusted in eons, feral pigeons have decided to move in and the plumbing is as old as the Mughals who inspired the architecture.
To the rescue comes Sunny (Dev Patel), the ridiculously young manager of the hotel who’s shunned the usual calling of going into his father’s business or working at a call centre to rescue his family-owned hotel and turn it into a care home so good that the elderly will “simply refuse to die.”
It’s apparent from the outset that the wonder of India will translate into new beginnings and unexpected endings for this motley crew of pensioners. There is however, no predictability and that’s largely due to the staggering wealth of acting talent on display.
Whether its carrying off the bewilderment of old age and retirement, enlightening a group of call centre workers on the nuances of dealing with elderly broadband customers in the UK or coming to terms with the slow disintegration of a long marriage, each and everyone one of these veteran actors is outstanding.
Dench, shorn of the superciliousness of ‘M’, is achingly vulnerable. Wilkinson is tremendous as a veteran of India spreading calm amongst the shocked arrivals. Nighy may seem stuck in the same role of the stuttering, quintessential English gentleman but that familiarity is nowhere more perfectly suited than here; loyal to the end, open to the undiscovered and conflicted beyond belief.
Imrie and Pickup excel as well in their limited time on screen. The pick of the lot though is Maggie Smith; wheelchair bound and forced to outsource her hip replacement, she can scarcely conceal her contempt for the foreigners she relies on for a new lease of life.
And they are all given some of the best lines in cinema in recent times; the script (adapted from Deborah Moggach’s 2004 novel ‘These Foolish things’) seems to provide a memorable refrain every couple of minutes.
The story is slightly predictable but who cares when the journey’s so much fun.
The only blight is Dev Patel who spends the entire movie trying to overcompensate for the thespian talent around him by either being too wooden or over-egging it to such an extent that you feel like stuffing a feral pigeon in his animated mouth.
The Indian team however is rescued to an extent by Lilette Dubey who plays Sunny’s exasperated mother and Tena Desae as Sunaina, Sunny’s love interest in a slightly irrelevant side narrative. Desae’s been touted as the ‘next Frieda Pinto’ but is seems a mistake on the part of her PR team for she displays far more gravitas than the sickly sweet Pinto and is possessed with a beauty and presence that is at once exotic and charming.
Director John Madden is best known for such grave fare as Shakespeare in Love and The Debt but here he allows the cast to work their magic in what is essentially a coming of age story for really old people. As a consequence it drips with plenty of charm and British good cheer.
The narrative never promises any profundity but there is nonetheless something tremendously profound about the journey of discovery that these persons of an advanced age go through in India as opposed to someone half a century younger.
This is due to the fact that ultimately, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is an advertisement for the transformative, life-affirming nature of India in all its’ wonderful, contradictory glory.
- Vijitha Alles