Movies that celebrate the wisdom and ingenuity of senior citizens without condescension and ridicule are rare as pink giraffes. This is just one of the reasons I am so enthusiastic about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and starring a royal collection of the most brilliant and accomplished British actors alive—the cinematic equivalent of the crown jewels, headed by two actual Dames, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. If that’s not enough to get you out of the sludge, then you deserve the usual avalanche of vampires, Avengers and cabins in the woods that epitomize the dumbing down of the motion picture industry.
Enticed by the lure of colorful travel-magazine adverts promising a life of tranquility and luxury in the newly restored Marigold Hotel, seven senior citizens searching for a place to spend their golden years travel from the U.K. to India to enjoy their retirement. Bravely soldiering into the camel dung and curry of a country that is an open invitation to acid reflux, they find a resort in Jaipur that is nothing like what they were promised. The broken-down Marigold is not only misrepresented in the brochures, but is scarcely more than a ruin, where everything is badly in need of repair and nothing works, including cell-phone signals and plumbing. In this godforsaken place, a series of comic misadventures ensue that teach a diverse group of rough and randy retirees that no man is an island while they are transformed by shared experiences both sad and uplifting. The audience has the best time of anybody.
This is no pathetic gang of helpless elderly victims discarded by a society hooked on youth. Sure, they face the daunting problems of trying to figure out the new technology their grandchildren already understand, and they talk about buying panic buttons in case of sudden falls. But they’re crafty and brave and not yet ready for Ovaltine, rocking chairs and Metamucil. After newly widowed Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) spends her late husband’s savings paying estate taxes, she finds herself financially bereft and in need of a new beginning. Cantankerous old dragon Mrs. Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) needs a hip replacement, refuses to eat anything she can’t pronounce and is so cognizant of what little time she has left that she won’t even buy green bananas. Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) is a gay judge who has left the bench and returned to India to look up a long-lost lover he abandoned years earlier in an act of cowardice for fear of disgracing his family. Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy) is ready to jump-start his life, but his wife Jean (Penelope Wilton) is a quarrelsome pickle who hates India on sight—especially the heat, the squalor and the food that attacks her colon, leaving her husband to explore his new surroundings alone and form a warm friendship with Evelyn that sends Jean into jealous rages. Rounding out this motley crew of septuagenarian pioneers are Norman (Ronald Pickup), a horny bachelor looking for sexual fulfillment before he dies, and Madge (Celia Imrie, one of the stars of Downtown Abbey), a lonely multiple divorcee who has rebelled against her role as baby sitter and left her daughter’s home forever to look for her next husband. Some of them have sold out and walked away from the burdens of old age, announcing their own personal declaration of independence. Others, like Evelyn, have gone through their savings and must learn to make ends meet. All of them find themselves at the mercy of the naïve, clueless but cheerful manager (Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel) and all of them face the “assault on the senses” that is modern India, a land of so many dialects that even the people cannot communicate from one village to the next. The joy and passion of the movie is how they survive in the endless collision of colors, noise, car horns, traffic jams, smells, beggars, textiles, spicy foods and cultural challenges in order to cope and hopefully thrive. Some of their experiences are touching, others are hilarious. You haven’t lived until you see Maggie Smith, her face narrowed as a dried fig, surveying the chaos of India and saying, “I’m in hell.”
So many movies depict the elderly as gravely ignored, overlooked and forgotten that it’s a veritable thrill to see them treated with so much respect, humor and dignity. If nothing else, the rapture, pride and honest emotion in Judi Dench’s shifting expressions make the price of admission a privilege. The ensemble acting is of a monumental caliber seldom encountered in motion pictures, the wonderful screenplay by Ol Parker (adapted from Deborah Moggach’s best-selling novel These Foolish Things) captures the diverse characters with detailed reverie, and John Madden’s direction juxtaposes the manifold escapades with unerring vigilance. The theme is that it is never too late to find love, trust and a fresh beginning at any age. Some may find The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel too slow for its own good, and not because the cast is too old to move any faster. But I found it paced with the charm, heartbeat and optimism that make a true classic. There are many words to describe how I feel about it. Let’s start with gratitude.
THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL
Running Time 124 minutes
Written by Ol Parker (screenplay) and
Deborah Moggach (novel)
Directed by John Madden
Starring Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith