Director: John Madden
Stars: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith
Plot: A group of unconnected British pensioners end up on holiday together in India, but find their accommodation to be anything but luxurious.
If you go and see a British film at the cinema these days, you’ll be pretty much guaranteed to see either Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson or Bill Nighy featured in some guise or another. While Wilkinson has been cropping up in many a Hollywood blockbuster, Dench continues to add gravitas to the James Bond franchise as ‘M’ in the up-coming release of Skyfall. So, when an opportunity to see these cinematic heavyweights appear together in the same film, does it add up to a knockout result?
Seven retirees who are supposed to be enjoying their twilight years, are each compelled to visit India for their own respective journey of self-discovery. Recently widowed housewife Evelyn (Dench) has to sell her house to cover debts left by her late husband. Graham (Wilkinson) lived in India as a boy and decides to revisit the country. Jean (Penelope Wilton) and Doug (Nighy) are struggling for money after investing in their daughter’s failed company. Muriel (Smith) needs a hip replacement and is told that she can have this done in India to little expense. Wealthy Madge (Celia Imrie) is looking for another husband and aging lothario Norman (Ronald Pickup) is desperately seeking out one-night stands in an attempt to recapture his youth. Each character’s storyline intertwine together as they fly to India and then onto Jaipur via a particularly long, bumpy ride on a bus. Upon arrival at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, they are met by enthusiastic host Sonny (Dev Patel), who tries to make them all comfortable despite the fact that the once magnificent hotel is now dilapidated.
Jean decides to stay in the hotel for most of the time while her husband Doug explores the city’s sights as suggested by Graham who finds that Jaipur has changed a great deal since he was last there. As Muriel’s distaste for foreigners is clear to see, she is humbled by the efforts of her doctor and the hotel cleaner who is a member of the “Untouchable” caste, for her kindness. Evelyn discovers that she cannot afford the low rates of the hotel, so she decides to garner some income by working at the local call centre to show them how to engage their British customers without alienating them with dizzying jargon. Meanwhile, Sonny fails to convince an investor to contribute to the restoration of the hotel and continues to visit a girl of whom his mother strongly disapproves. Madge joins an exclusive club, but fails to persuade the manager she is Princess Margaret, she finds Norman at the bar, having passed himself off as HRH Duke of Kent. As each member of the group becomes slowly accustomed to their surroundings, a few secrets and home truths are unearthed which will have far-reaching consequences for all those concerned.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel cannot claim to have the best script to match its title. Ironically it feels rushed and cobbled together, much like the hotel hospitality itself, in an effort to put Dench, Smith, Wilkinson and Co. in the same film purely for the benefit of the box office. When plotting simultaneous storylines, the onus is on each and every one of those to be equally significant in order for the finale to prove satisfying. As it happens, only the subplot concerning Tom Wilkinson’s character Graham has enough mileage – in fact there is more than enough of a story there to make a film just about his moving journey of resolving his unfinished business. He is really at the heart of everything, while all of the other protagonists revolve around him, as scene by scene we have to jump from one to the next without anywhere near adequate pause for thought. This is a shame because there are some potentially great moments that could have been capitalised upon, but the emotion invested is regularly broken by an apparently desperate need to spread everything very thinly. This works in theory during the scenes of banter, but over the course of the film, doesn’t really prove to be a successful method for a decent ending.
The acting, as you would expect, is generally exemplary. Whenever Judi Dench is on-screen she shines as Evelyn, who needs to be played with dignity but also wit – few others could have done a better job. Tom Wilkinson seems to be at home playing Graham – his performance is very touching and deserves most of the accolades. If there was ever a more obvious chance for a spin-off, then here it is – with only Wilkinson as the lead, of course. Maggie Smith delivers her lines with a similar acerbic wit to her alter ego The Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey - her character is supposed to be unlikeable, but Smith gives the role a sarcastic twist in her own indomitable style. As for the rest of the British stalwarts, Nighy and Imrie are perhaps the best-known, but there are also notable contributions from Penelope Wilton and Ronald Pickup, who both take a back seat to their illustrious co-stars. Dev Patel is arguably the big let-down. The blatant choice to play the Indian host, his character Sonny Kapoor is too stereotypical to be taken seriously and belongs in a cartoon rather than a live-action film. His performance merely comes across as trying too hard to provide the comic relief, when a more subtle approach would have been far easier to swallow.
Don’t be fooled by Exotic Marigold’s cast – there are some neat moments and India looks sumptuous, but the end result is less than satisfying. Still, with a streamlining of the cast and a more believable hotel manager, our stay would have been less Fawlty Towers and more Hilton.