First Class Accommodations
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Enjoying the profound and humorous insights about one’s golden years so charmingly assayed by John Madden’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” it occurred that this film should be mandatory viewing for anyone with a civic sense. While seniors will enjoy the concurrence of truths they’ve learned, young folks should benefit most from its wisdom.
Apparently, none of the characters etched here by a fine ensemble of grade A British thespians saw that dooming sign in the grocery stores, barber shops and auto garages of their youth that read, “We grow old too soon and smart too late.” For in 21st Century England, approaching the precipice of their last act, they are all painfully unprepared.
For most it’s money. In a comical, expository scene, being shown a humdrum example of over 55 housing mediocrity, Penelope Wilton’s Jean Ainslie exclaims, “Thirty years in the Civil Service and this is what we can afford?” For others it’s a dream unfulfilled, an inability to adjust, or, as in Grahame Dashwood’s case, a past affair never reconciled.
Had Arthur Hailey added to his “Airport” and “Hotel” a work he might have called “Active Adult Community,” odds are it’d mirror what novelist Deborah Moggach so affably achieved in “These Foolish Things,” here transposed to the screen by Ol Parker as “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” A bunch of people share a bunch of problems.
Mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore, to paraphrase Peter Finch’s newscaster Howard Beale in “Network” (1976), our splendid dramatis personae decide to make some destiny modifications. Having all learned about the title residence in India through colorfully descriptive, exalting brochures, it’s there they will outsource their retirement.
Although widow Evelyn Greenslade, sharply portrayed by Judi Dench, hasn’t quite resorted to eating cat food, yet, her dear departed, financially irresponsible spouse has left her little choice. The same situation pretty much applies to the aforementioned public servant and her Casper Milquetoast of a spouse, Douglas, caringly played by Bill Nighy.
Continuing down the line, the great Maggie Smith’s Muriel Donnelly has a bad hip and a broken heart after being told by the family whose children she raised and accounts she kept in order for over thirty years that her services would no longer be needed. Putting her rabid xenophobia aside for the moment, the hip replacement is a real steal in India.
And then for some, the decision to export one’s future has, in varying degree, a sexual connotation. Pretty Marge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie), like Tennessee Williams’s Blanche Dubois, has always relied on the kindness of strangers to ensure her sense of wellbeing. Whereas Ronald Pickup’s wily Norman Cousins is just an old rake on the make.
Running counterpoint to these sagas of the silver-haired set is the story of their ambitious host, Sonny, the youngest of several Indian brothers, all of whom have achieved some sort of success. Played by Dev Patel, the perennial optimist hopes to make his fortune and so impress his mom that she accedes to his love of the lesser caste Sunaina (Tena Desae).
But it won’t be easy. Sonny somewhat overstated the beauteous attributes of the Marigold, which is neither best nor exotic in the conventional sense of those adjectives. Like that first house the realtor showed you, just to set you up for the realities of the market, this is a fixer-upper extraordinaire. Insofar as Mom, well, she’s Babbitt in a sari.
Of course the rambling hotel, replete with tons of great old columns, alcoves, nooks and rooms bereft of doors is an architectural metaphor, its blighted state begging to rise up from the ashes and realize its potential glory. Thus it follows that, like Dorothy’s pals in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), each sojourner hopes to find what’s lacking in his or her life.
Reminded of the adage, “There, but for the grace of G-d, go I,” our souls demand we root for them, both as fictitious characters and because of the real world shame they represent. You want to wave their plight under the haughty noses of Social Darwinists the way the Ghost of Christmas Present revealed to Scrooge the indigent tots under his robe.
It is muckraking in its politest, most savvy form, a synergy of Western and Eastern sentiment woven into a compelling cry for redress. Although the faucets leak, the phones don’t work and the food is a bit spicier than you’re used to, just chalk it up as part of the overall charm that makes “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” a four-star film destination.
“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” rated PG-13, is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release directed by John Madden and stars Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and Dev Patel. Running time: 124 minutes