A group of British retirees answer an ad for an Indian “luxury development for residents in their golden years,” and ends up in a dilapidated hotel in Jaipur, India, in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Nominally dealing with the phenomenon of “outsourcing” seniors to retire in more affordable countries, this drama-comedy from Shakespeare in Love director John Madden features a cast that’s pure British sterling: A couple of Dames – Maggie Smith and Judi Dench – along with Tom Wilkinson and Billy Nighy, just to start.
Unfortunately, the script, based on Deborah Moggach’s 2004 novel These Foolish Things, might better be described as pure British stodge: high-starch English comfort food of more sentimental than nutritional value. We’re introduced to each of these senior tourists, along with their personal baggage, in a brisk series of opening montages. Dench plays Evelyn, who discovers after her husband’s death that the spouse who promised to care for her has left her in debt and homeless. Her emotional awakening in India is recorded on her voice-over blog, which pops up periodically throughout the film.
Among the slower converts to the charms of India is Smith’s Muriel, a Cockney domestic who ran a household until she was fired for her age. In spite of her anti-Indian bigotry, she has come here for cheap hip-replacement surgery. Nighy plays Douglas, the nobly passive husband of the shrewish spouse, Jean (Penelope Wilton); they’re living in reduced means after giving their life savings to their daughter’s Web start-up company. Wilkinson is Graham, a former judge who spent his youth in India, and has some unfinished business.
For would-be semi-comic relief, there’s Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup as a couple of aging singles on the prowl: She’s looking for a rich husband to carry her through her golden years, he’s looking for a late-life fling to warm the cockles of his heart.
Each of the seven characters has a slightly different attitude toward the sensory assault and complexity of India, with the nervous Jean and Muriel hiding out in the hotel compound, while others venture forth and allow themselves to be transformed. The lifelong bachelor Graham tracks down an old love – oh, just guess the surprise. Evelyn even manages to get a job at the call centre, advising Indian phone operators on how to converse with cranky old English people.
On the Indian side, we have Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel as Sonny, overplaying the young hotelier with wise sayings and exaggerated servility. Naturally, he has his own burdens: His pretty girlfriend works at a call centre, but his mother has an arranged marriage for him. Among his staff is a maid in the hotel, an untouchable, whom the xenophobic Muriel, after correcting her sweeping technique, recognizes as a kindred soul.
So much adorableness wears out its welcome fairly quickly, and at more than two hours, Marigold Hotel is not a short movie. No doubt the virtuoso cast isn’t bad company to kill time – from Smith’s patented indignant eye-roll to Nighy’s stretched-out comic reaction takes – but the pacing runs counter to the movie’s message, that time is too precious to waste. With its stereotypical characters and creaky plot turns, this passage to India feels even longer than its running time.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
- Directed by John Madden
- Written by Ol Parker
- Starring Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy
- Classification: PG