Evelyn (Judi Dench) is a 70-something widow who never knew she had a self-sufficient bone in her body until her husband died, leaving her to cope with a mountain of debt. The lifelong bachelor Graham (Tom Wilkinson) decides in a sudden epiphany to resign the judgeship he’s held for years and return to his childhood home in India. The married Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) face a penurious retirement after investing their life savings in their daughter’s risky “start-up” venture. Madge (Celia Imrie) is a multiple divorcée who can’t see spending the rest of her life babysitting her grandchildren, and Norman (Ronald Pickup), an unrepentant gigolo, can’t see hanging around on his home turf to suffer repeated rejections from the young women he meets while speed-dating. And then there’s Muriel (Maggie Smith), a crotchety spinster who spent the best years of her life taking care of a wealthy family, and is now wheelchair-bound until she can get a costly hip replacement. Her doctor advises that hip surgery is both fast and cheap in India.
These seven characters don’t know one another, of course, until they meet on a flight from the U.K. to India—having been lured there by a website for the Marigold Hotel, in Jaipur, which is pictured (Photoshopped) as a tropic paradise, a luxurious but inexpensive retirement home catering to “the elderly and the beautiful.” But the promotional campaign is a lie, the brainchild of young Sonny Kapur (Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame), for the Marigold Hotel was a dilapidated wreck when he inherited it, and although he has dreams, big dreams, of turning it into the luxurious haven he envisions, it’s still a wreck by the time his first foreign guests arrive—Evelyn, Graham, et al. They’re greeted with sawhorses and sawdust everywhere, rooms without doors and phones that won’t work.
As an old India hand, Graham takes Sonny’s deception in stride, and, with the help of the young hotel owner’s boundless enthusiasm and his wild promises to mend things, he encourages the others to be patient—and to get to know their adopted country. Evelyn and Douglas immediately embrace the colorful chaos that is India—and both find a new personal independence, which forms the basis of the warm but tentative friendship between them. Douglas’ wife Jean and Muriel turn out to be the chronic complainers—and Muriel is a bit of a racist as well. “There’s an Indian in that room,” she whispers from her wheelchair. Her post-surgical rehab can’t be over fast enough, as Muriel is adamant about returning to England as soon as she can walk. Madge and Norman, meanwhile, continue to search for romance in all the wrong places.
Are these characters stereotypical, and their stories predictable? Well, yes, and we are warned, several times, by the optimist Sonny that “everything will be all right in the end—so if it is not all right, it is not yet the end.” But in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, even those who meet a predictable fate do not get there by following a predictable path. Take the crotchety Muriel: When her long-held prejudices begin to erode, she resists mightily, because—as Maggie Smith masterfully makes clear—Muriel is absolutely terrified of change. Not so the widow Evelyn. (An aside: The one major fault in this movie is that the Dames Dench and Smith have far too few scenes together.) Dench, who reportedly fell in love with India while making Marigold Hotel, lets that love shine through Evelyn. In the blog sent to her family back home, she says she’s determined “not only to cope but to thrive” in her new environment, and to that end she gets a job as a consultant at an outsourced commercial call center. Her advice to the Indian callers? Be more sympathetic toward little old English ladies like herself, who may ask questions about “the interweb.”
All of the performances in Marigold are splendid, but the film’s two male stars are downright surprising. Wilkinson always exudes authority, of course, but we’ve seldom seen the vulnerability he displays in Graham, who discovers there was no basis for the lover’s guilt that had haunted his entire life. And while Nighy is true to form—laconically quick-witted and terribly funny—he reaches new and powerful depths of feeling as a man in grips of seething rage. A word or two must also be said about Penelope Wilton, as Nighy’s neurotic nudge of a wife, the confused and frustrated Jean. She has some of the script’s truest moments, and a few of its best lines. Such as her take on their ex-pat group as a bunch of “self-deluded old fossils traipsing around as if we’re on a gap year!”
Under John Madden’s direction of Ol Parker’s screenplay (adapted from the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggah), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel admirably sets out to say some profound things in a lighthearted way about aging—the loneliness, the financial and sexual insecurities. It also tries to offer a peek into the “new” India, an ancient culture undergoing rapid modernization and wrenching change. The targeted audience for this film—that oft-overlooked generation of elders and those not far behind them—may not gain any new insights from the surprising revelations, amusing plot twists and personality transformations that ensue as the outsourced retirees learn to adapt, or not, to an exotic alien culture. But they will probably sniff back a tear or two, laugh out loud here and there—and undoubtedly they’ll leave the theatre believing, for a while at least, that, hey, it’s never too late.