By Joan Ellis
See what a good trailer can do: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel opened in a packed theater on a sunny afternoon after a week of rain. This was an audience already steeped in the pure pleasure of watching a superb British cast at work. There are problems with this movie, but watching the sly grace of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Bill Nighy and their peers is not one of them.
Director John Madden opens with short shots of seven retirees who need, for various reasons, to get away from England. In the words of the proprietor of The Marigold Hotel, the Brits are “outsourcing their retirement” in much the same way as the world has come to outsourcing customer service to Indian phone banks.
Mrs. Greenslade (Judi Dench) is newly widowed and short on funds; Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) wants to return to India in search of his first love; Mrs. Donnely (Maggie Smith) is looking for a new hip at a low price. Mr. and Mrs. Ainslie (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) are miserable together and need a change; Mr. Cousins (Ronald Pickup) is searching for a final one-night stand, and Mrs. Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) is sick of family life. They have settled on “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Old and Beautiful” in Udaipur.
The exotic qualities of the once grand hotel, exist now only in the mind of Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) who has inherited from his father both the hotel and dreams for its refurbishment. As the seven settle in to the new culture, they all become involved in small dramas of their own making. India is “an assault on the senses,” according to Mrs. Ainslee. “Yes, of color and light, of smiles and kindness, of crowds, and smells and food,” Mr. Dashwood replies.
When several complain of the dilapidation, proprietor Kapoor replies that he had “a vision of the future which I hoped would by now be the present.” Mrs. Ainslie, who makes even the beauty something to hate, refers to the experience as “a gap year.”
Is there anyone who can better convey humanity and decency than Judi Dench? Even when she sits startlingly still, saying nothing, just listening, she draws every eye in the house. Dench, Tom Wilkinson, and Bill Nighy all have certain sadness in their insights and regrets, and we care about them.
So what then are the problems? The tone of the movie is sometimes at odds with itself, a kind of awkward confusion between comedy and anger. There is an underlying sadness that is natural to endings, but there is also a nasty xenophobia that infects several of the negative characters – the ugly tourists in a foreign land. Two of the fine actors are asked to throw these one-step-too-far grenades into the gentle, graceful comedy we thought we were watching.
Should you go? With this cast? Of course.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.