The different is in Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson appearing together, along with Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Dev Patel, and other fine Indian actors who add to the movie royalty on display.
The lead actors play British citizens who decide to retire to what they learn is a dignified Indian palace called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful. Dench plays Evelyn Greenslade, newly widowed, whose son says that the flat needs to be sold off in order to pay off the late Hugh’s debts. Maggie Smith is Muriel Donnelly, who we first see in a hospital because of a fall that requires a hip operation, but she won’t have a doctor who’s not Indian. Yep, she’s racist, and crotchety, but once in India, her racism stutters and then falls away. Tom Wilkinson plays Graham, a High Court judge going to yet another retirement party, listening to the same dull speech that’s expected at these things, but he decides in that moment that he will retire and go to India. His story is the most intriguing, serving as the core of what these men and women are questioning about their lives, including Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton as Douglas and Jean Ainslie, who have both retired from 30 years in the civil service, and find that where they might move to next is not a proper way of living, not a house of dignity for the aging. Douglas decides that India is where they should go, to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Once the group arrives, after a cancelled flight leads to a long bus trip and then to the hotel in tuk-tuks, they find the hotel is not at all what they had read about, and doesn’t represent what the photos have shown them. But they adjust, most notably Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup), alleged ladies’ man, who hangs up his radio, looks out at the view, and says, “This will do.” He’s my favorite on the basis of that alone, even with Dench and Nighy, two of my favorite actors, in a storyline together, but he isn’t given as much screen time because screenwriter Ol Parker can’t find much to do with him. So Parker makes his traits easy to know, just like Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie), who’s come to India to find another husband, and puts them to the side, because who would dare give Dench, Smith, Nighy and Wilkinson less screen time? It’s somewhat disappointing, since Pickup is a genuinely delightful actor, but then director John Madden picks us up and whisks us along on Evelyn’s life journey, as well as Graham’s. There’s no time to dwell on stories that are believed not to offer as much meat, because there’s so much of India to see!
The new is the India few of us will likely venture to on our own, and so here it is as filtered through the expansive eye of cinematographer Ben Davis, bright, colorful, crowded with all kinds of lives. Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) is the central Indian life, being that he’s trying to make The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel work. He wants to build on what his late father established, much to the disapproval of his mother (Lillete Dubey), who would rather see the property sold and have her son move back to Delhi with her. But this is the life that Sonny sees most suitable for himself, even as he struggles with standing up to his mother, especially when trying to tell her that he doesn’t want an arranged marriage; he wants to spend his life with Sunaina (Tena Desae), who works in the same call center at which Evelyn finds a job as a cultural advisor.
Director Madden may have sensed that Parker’s screenplay doesn’t offer a great deal in character development beyond what’s necessary to show the changes in these men and women. That’s important enough, but the story does noticeably slow down. Yet, we don’t notice all that much. Maybe just a quick realization that nothing much has happened in the last 10 minutes, and then back to looking at the sights of India, to watching Graham’s search for his former lover, believing that their affair brought shame on the man’s family, to watching Douglas struggle with a marriage to an unhappy woman, who seems more unsatisfied with life than unhappy with him, but it might as well be the same thing. So Douglas finds a kind of solace in spending time with Evelyn, getting to know her. It’s all quietly dignified, no emotion out of place, no crazed outbursts. It’s the British way.
Madden keeps things moving well, even when there isn’t much to move. It exudes a gentle charm that never demands more than it can give. You might very well forget most of what went on in the week or two after you’ve seen it, just like most memories begin to fade after the vacation is over, but in the moment, you just sit back and watch a cast that makes you wonder why they haven’t appeared together more often, and enjoy the time that they have together here.
The DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment is an unfortunate waste, offering “Behind the Story: Lights, Colors and Smiles,” which is barely over two minutes of merely rehashing what has already been seen, by interviews with many of the actors, and “Casting Legends,” in which Madden and screenwriter Parker and Dev Patel and others express awe in working with Dench, Smith, Nighy, and Wilkinson. There’s actual behind-the-scenes footage in the latter featurette, which makes it marginally better, but nothing substantial about the filming, nothing about the actors’ feelings about filming in India, nothing of what it took to get it made, to film the crowd scenes, to journey to these different locations in India. The Blu-ray edition does include two additional featurettes, “Trekking to India: “Life is Never the Same,” and “Tuk Tuk Travels,” which I hope add more substance to what would be uncomfortably thin if the movie wasn’t a pleasant journey.
So come take a vicarious trip to India. If you don’t like the generally frenetic nature of movies these days, and you want to see actors who are known for being actors, great actors, instead of just being attached to a popular franchise, spend time with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. This kind of movie still exists, and though it doesn’t seem like it comes out very often, it’s worth it when it does. Because while watching The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, while feeling delight at seeing Dench and Smith together, you can figure out who you are based on which characters you like, and have some time to think in the slow moments about the kind of life you’d want when you get older, who you’d want to be, if you’d move to a new country as these characters have. It’s a lot to think about, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel considerately gives you time to do so.