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The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
directed by John Madden
Fox Searchlight Pictures
John Madden, the distinguished British director of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, tells us that his film has the structure of a Shakespearean comedy. A group of unhappy people escape to a different world, a magical wilderness that tests and transforms them for the better, similar to the Forest of Arden in As You Like It. But in Madden’s film, Arcadia is Jaipur, India, teeming with humanity; the supposedly luxe Marigold Hotel is a ruin; and the group are seniors in crisis.
Best known in the United States for his Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love, Madden worked long and hard with screenwriter Ol Parker to fashion a workable script out of Deborah Moggach’s entertaining novel These Foolish Things. Needless to say the result is less than Shakespearean and includes some tired gag lines. Maggie Smith as the elderly Muriel Donnelly has to tell us she doesn’t “even buy green bananas” anymore. When asked if at his age he isn’t worried about health, the equally elderly, Viagra-armed Norman (Ronald Pickup), on his way to a Kama Sutra assignation, happily replies, “If she dies, she dies.”
Madden is not an agonized genius who makes his actors miserable with the peremptory demands of sudden inspiration. He is by all accounts a lovely human being, deeply intelligent, kind to his actors, and respected by them. He wants the script and acting talent to carry the film. The all-star cast from the pantheon of British theater and television who went on location to film Marigold Hotel have all worked with him before and do their best with the lines they are given. But while they may be transformed by their experiences in the Marigold Hotel, none get beyond charming. None reach the heights they have achieved in the past.
• • •
Marigold Hotel begins with what might be described as typical late-life crises among an elderly group of seven. Evelyn (Judi Dench) is recently widowed, left helpless and in debt by her controlling late husband. Muriel—who ran someone else’s household, raised their children, and lived vicariously through them—has been put out to pasture. Alone in the world and filled with resentment, she is confined to a wheel chair as she awaits a hip replacement. Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton) are the film’s only couple, a retired civil servant and his wife, outraged by the quality of life his pension permits. Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a bachelor and retired high court judge who grew up in India, is on a mysterious quest for someone there. Norman and Madge (Celia Imrie) are looking for mates. Norman thinks he has still got it but just “can’t find anyone who wants it”; Madge is still trying to catch a rich man. Her best line (one that has been used before) is a double entendre: when asked, “How many husbands have you had?” she responds, “Including my own?” They are all in economic straits, lured to India by Sonny’s (Dev Patel) false advertisements as he tries to make a go of the dilapidated hotel left to him by his father.
Patel races around repeating, ‘Everything will be all right in the end . . . if it’s not all right then it’s not the end.’
Giving all these characters time to establish themselves is impossible. But the quick portraits are drawn with compassion, and the film has its moments.
Dench and Smith, doyennes of British acting, are both 77 years old, and both are and always have been character actors. Neither was ever a cinema beauty. Smith, thin and angular with furrowed brows, even when young, has a distinctive manner and strong will. In earlier days, she was England’s Katharine Hepburn but with more steel and less glamour. Her role as Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter film series made her a celebrity all over the world. In recent years she has brought a decidedly over-the-top campiness to many of her parts, as she does with Muriel. Dench is now a global celebrity too, having achieved her fame as M, James Bond’s boss in the 007 films. She has been plump, to put it kindly, all her life, but never graceless. At an audition in her twenties, a director said, “Well, Miss Dench, I have to tell you that you have every single thing wrong with your face.” That may have been true, but over the years her features have achieved an elegance. She won an Oscar, under Madden’s direction, for her Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love. Unlike Smith she is never over the top. As Evelyn she becomes the character with nothing left.
They are both wonderful in this film in their own ways, as are all the actors. But if one were giving out an award, it might go to Wilton. Her Jean is desperately unhappy with her lot in life and with the Arcadia of India. She recoils at the stench of humanity, spreading negativity and suffering for her false pride. She does not meet the challenge and is the only character not transformed in the film. Her failings play out on her unbeautiful face in nuanced expressions. In the end we pity this miserable woman if we do not forgive her nastiness to her long-suffering husband.
• • •
The plot of Marigold Hotel hinges on the idea of outsourcing the care and feeding of the British elderly to India. In what I take to be Madden’s direction, Patel races around frantically, exaggerating every word and gesture, and repeating his Panglossian line of wisdom, “Everything will be all right in the end . . . if it’s not all right then it’s not the end.” He is a caricature who nonetheless manages to be likeable.
In the real world, outsourcing the elderly is not a new idea. When the Japanese became prosperous, they started building retirement (nursing) homes in the Philippines and Indonesia. For generations British elderly have been escaping their own weather for the South of France, the Algarve, Majorca. Scandinavian countries send their nursing home occupants to the Mediterranean for the winter. And Americans and Canadians go to Florida. In fact when Douglas’s golf partner asks if Jaipur is like Florida, he responds, with flawless timing, “Yeah, but with more elephants.”
Of course India is the antithesis of these modern day Arcadias for the aged, and the arrival of the group is an ironic reverse of the Raj. One of the tests in this Arcadia is whether they can surrender their British sense of superiority.
Parker and Madden have woven a moral adventure into each of these people’s lives. The challenge is greatest for Muriel. Filled with resentment and always identifying with her former employers’ elevated social position, she is a blatant racist. At the National Health Service she refuses to be examined by a black doctor. And when she sees him washing his hands, she declares loudly, “He can wash all he wants, that color’s not coming off.” But when she must choose between waiting for months in England for her hip replacement or being outsourced to a hospital in India, she gets on the plane with the others, still loud in her reflexive racism.
As it turns out, in India she befriends and is befriended by the untouchable woman who cleans the floors and welcomes Muriel into her humble home with its throng of extended family. Muriel’s heart melts and her superiority dissolves. The new hip works, too, and, restored to vigor, she takes over the management of Sonny’s failing hotel, running it with the same skill she once applied to her employers’ household. She has gone from desperate loneliness, futility, and resentment to community, purpose, and bonhomie. Her miracle in the Indian Arcadia is to escape her cage of prejudice. It happens in a moment of empathy.
Muriel’s miracle in India is to escape her cage of prejudice. It happens in a moment of empathy.
Graham, the judge, takes another moral adventure. In retrospect it seems to me the great actor Tom Wilkinson, over the course of the film, adopts some of the softer body language and gentler manner of a gay man. In any event his mystery is eventually revealed: as a teenager living in India and sure of his own gay identity, he fell in love with a young Indian servant. Their affair was discovered, and the Indian man and his family were sent away in disgrace. Graham went off to England and never did anything to help his disgraced lover. He returns to find him. He does, and in one of the film’s most moving scenes the two elderly men embrace as the camera pans away. Graham tells his story to the lecherous Norman, explaining that his guilt about abandoning his young lover had become a prison, and he is finally free. Having made his confession, as it were, Graham dies happily. The others who are transformed emerge engaged in living as never before.
Shakespeare’s comedies end with weddings. Here there are none, but everyone finds a lover, except Jean, who returns to England alone. In the last scene, we see Evelyn riding behind Douglas on a motor scooter. They were meant for each other—kindred spirits brought together in Arcadia. Dench seems to be hanging on for dear life but trying not to show it. That is surely how Evelyn would have felt. The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel is best thought of as a fairy tale for old people—an anodyne against the cruel reality. Madden has not broken new ground and may not win any awards, but he has no reason to be ashamed. The film invites your affection.
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