By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
If Carl from Up bumped into Shirley Valentine on his next balloon trip to India; if Eat Pray Love’s Liz Gilbert located a personality; if director John Madden took the delicious rhythms of his Shakespeare in Love … oh, wait, he did, delivering some of his very best in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Akin to the movie’s characters, Madden refuses to let his 60+ years slow him down, continuing to divine the divine in this salute to exploring new paths no matter the age; no matter the baggage.
And speaking of baggage, seven British retirees pack as much of their lives as they can into a few trunks and trundle off to India, lured by advertisements for the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel that bespeaks a viable, economic alternative to UK retirement homes. After all, why contend with England’s high prices and endless winter, when pensioners can bask in the warm climate and colors of Jaipur, living out one’s days in a quasi-palace that brings to mind a miniature Taj Mahal?
Talk about your false advertising. It turns out that the hotel is far from the promised land, as much in need of rejuvenation as the seniors themselves. But Dev Patel’s Sonny, an overly optimistic young man who’s inherited the place from his father, is bound and determined to turn his dream into reality.
The film starts off in a conventional yet entertaining manner, introducing the seven principals in quick, revelatory snapshots prior to their taking leave of their UK homeland: Judi Dench’s Evelyn is a new widow, shocked to learn that she’s inherited far more bad debt than good memories; Tom Wilkinson’s Graham is a High Court Judge who can’t bear another stuffy day among his barrister compatriots; Bill Nighy’s Douglas and Penelope Wilton’s Jean are an unhappily married couple, his half-full glass in direct conflict with her half-empty one; Maggie Smith’s Muriel is in need of a cheap hip replacement and though she’d rather not set one racist foot in India, she has no choice; Ronald Pickup’s Norman – answering to the actor’s own surname – is steadfast in his commitment to finding eligible bachelorettes; and lastly, we have Celia Imrie’s Madge, a multiple divorcée trying to jump back on the marriage-go-round one last time.
The filmmakers provide an artful juggle, intermingling the different personalities as they all find their own paths. Given that Madden is working with the cream of the UK thespian crop, it’s no wonder that the actors blend into such a skilled ensemble.
Unlike the vainglorious voiceover in Eat Pray Love, screenwriter Ol Parker uses the device of Evelyn’s blogs as a warm voiceover, as Evelyn intermittently observes and describes ongoing events, acting as a tour guide threading through the narrative. She is the spirit of the piece, her eyes shining with new-found delight as she bites into the alien surroundings with an open heart. Her scenes with Nighy’s Douglas are stirring, as the two kindred souls tentatively discover each other. With his loose limbs dangling as if they’d just been attached with an unreliable glue gun, his speech patterns oddly off-kilter, we can’t help but champion Douglas’ growing independence from his scourge of a spouse. And yet, as that spouse, Wilton succeeds in bringing an underlying empathy to a woman too frightened to venture outside of her own rigid sphere.
Sounding the acerbic note, Maggie Smith underscores the film with a wicked sense of humor, delivering her barbs with impeccable timing. “I’m in hell, I’m in hell” she mutters, her head sinking into her chest as she sits in her wheelchair, shrewdly observing all. Lest the story become mired in any sort of sentimentality, along comes Smith to slap it back into place.
The only wrinkle in this otherwise lovely venture comes from the Kapoor family, with the shrill mother (Lillete Dubey) written like the Wicked Witch, and Patel’s Sonny. Perhaps Patel was told to be funny one time too many, but Madden needed to rein in his performance to fit the film. Contrasting Patel’s portrayal to that of his girlfriend Sunaina (Tena Desae), we get a lovely young woman in love … with someone who appears to be more like her clownish little brother than a proper partner.
Some fall in love with the country; some fall in love with each other; and some fall in love with themselves. As with all good travel stories, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel examines characters who journey outside of themselves … only to circle back to their deepest, truest sense of home.
Rating on a scale of 5 Passages to India: 4
Release date: May 4, 2012 (ltd.; wider release May 11, 2012)
Directed by: John Madden
Screenplay by: Ol Parker
Based on the novel “These Foolish Things” by: Deborah Moggach
Cast: Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Dev Patel, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Tena Desae, Lillete Dubey
Running Time: 122 minutes