Whether as a bustling world of 1.2 billion people or as a place of intriguing and stoic spirituality, India is a country of vast impressions and significance. In John Madden’s comedy-drama The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel it is adopted as a setting of exotic pilgrimage, where the film’s elderly characters discover and transform themselves, resolve their problems, both past and present, and confront their growing sense of mortality.
Based on the book These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach, the story follows seven retired strangers who travel to Jaipur to stay at the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, run by a hapless, though eternally optimistic, young man named Sonny (Dev Patel). The cast is an impressive ensemble, most of who can be regarded as British national treasures. Most notably, Judi Dench plays heartbroken widow Evelyn, Maggie Smith a xenophobe named Muriel, Bill Nighy, alongside Penelope Wilton, are arguing couple Douglas and Jean, and Tom Wilkinson a former high court judge called Graham. Each flies to India with their own agenda in tow, and just as some willingly embrace it, others are slightly more adverse to their new surroundings. The overriding motive, however, is that, regardless of age or personal circumstance, it is never too late to let go of your inhibitions.
The film’s strengths are, in no doubt, indebted to the contributions of such a fine plethora of talent. Its best moments are reserved for the more dramatic sequences, of which there are several, with Dench and Wilkinson in particular flexing their acting prowess. There is sincerity and pathos in many of the performances, found within characters that have experienced long, somewhat unfulfilled lives, and that are in need of finding a release. The comedy, meanwhile, often operates on the perspectives, on the commonly conceived notions, and sometimes prejudices, of the elderly. Douglas and Jean, for example, are once condescendingly asked whether they would like supportive railings whilst being shown around a potential new home, whilst Smith’s Muriel is a foil for old dogmatic attitudes towards race. Yet, perhaps when it should, it never really reflects heavily on these interesting issues. Instead, it prefers to try and keep such moments trivial, as the characters begin to change and learn.
It is here where the film reaches a peak of mediocrity, by providing anything but groundbreaking or challenging material. Beautiful though its location may be, it has nothing new to add in its depiction of India, capturing a country we believe to know: of call centres, overcrowded streets and strict family lifestyles. There also exists a sense of glamour in Madden’s interpretation. The slums are few and far, yet this is an India where streetwise children can talk perfect English.
Its large list of characters also proves problematic, with its multiple arcs and divided screen time meaning that some characters and their stories appear underdeveloped and subordinate to others. Celia Imrie’s Madge, who becomes less and less relevant, and Ronald Pickup’s Norman, a tool for more comic relief, are obvious victims of this trait. As too are the potential closure of the hotel, Sonny’s relationship and Evelyn receiving an unexpected job, brushed over as the film runs through to completion.
Despite being a piece of work that veers dangerously into stereotype and unsurprising, cliché-ridden climaxes, it exhibits a pleasant and endearing sentimentality that ultimately means it will cater to its clear target audience. It will find its niche, and for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel this is likely to mean that, as Sonny is intent on suggesting, everything will be alright in the end.