Newly widowed and forced to sell her home to pay her husband’s debts, Evelyn, played by Judi Dench, is a woman in need of a fresh start. She finds it in the most unlikely of places, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a dilapidated home for the ‘elderly and beautiful’ in Jaipur, India, run by the endlessly optimistic Sonny, played by Dev Patel.
Her fellow guests include Douglas and Jean played by Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton, whose marriage is on the rocks. Tom Wilkinson is Graham, a high court judge returning to India to bury the ghosts of his past. Muriel, played by the irreplaceable Maggie Smith, is a bitter, racist ex-housekeeper suffering India for a quick and affordable hip replacement. Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie round out the cast as Norman and Madge, two lonely souls with libidos untamed by age, both of whom just want to have a bit of fun – though not with each other if Madge has anything to say about it.
This unapologetically feel-good film continues in the tradition of movies like Love Actually and Calendar Girls. Seven delightfully warm, yet credibly flawed characters are brought together in a story that deftly uses its setting to draw out their respective regrets, lost loves and desires for the future. It would have been too easy for the script to rest on fish-out-of-water gags and cheap cultural clashes. They’re certainly there, but as any traveller will attest, all are firmly rooted in reality.
The cast are strong on the whole. Smith in particular, attacks wheelchair-bound Muriel’s bigotry with enough cantankerousness to steal any scene, all while knowing just when to pull it back to give the character room to grow. Wilkinson brings a real sense of intrigue to Graham, until his big reveal, at which point many of his more subtle touches suddenly make a lot more sense. His revelation is hardly scandalous, but nonetheless suits the everyday tone of the film
Dench is a masterful anchor to the ensemble as the stoic and apparently sorted Evelyn, who approaches every problem with a stiff British upper lip, though she does let her control waver slightly, to bring that extra layer to the character. Pickup and Imrie, sadly, are a bit lost in the web, which speaks more to the pitfalls of the genre than any deficiency on the actors’ part. Norman and Madge are granted only the most superficial growth as characters, since so much attention is focused on their co-stars. Still, the film handles its multiple plotlines better than most, giving the characters (and by extension, the audience) a reason to care about each others’ journeys.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a warm, funny and moving crowd-pleaser. A testament to some great British talent, the futility of lifelong regrets, and the uncompromising ‘wow’ that is India.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is now screening nationally. See its trailer below.
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