I left John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel prepared to describe it as a fairy tale, only to realize how condescending that would be. Here is a film in which contrivances are not a narrative obligation but a means to an end, a method of sending a message that’s not only valid but life-affirming as well. Liking this film really has nothing to do with overlooking its obviously manufactured plot and reliably developed characters. It actually depends entirely on your willingness to hear what it has to say. Cynicism will not help you here. I say that as if it were a contractual obligation rather than a welcome opportunity to shed yourself of something heavy. Are today’s audiences so world-weary that a positive outlook is no longer welcome in the movies? I find such a prospect troublesome.
Adapted from Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things, the film tells a funny, romantic, and touching story of seven retirees who have relocated themselves from the U.K. to Jaipur, India. Most of them are hoping to start their life anew, although a select few are dragged kicking and screaming. Their destination is the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which was advertised as a peaceful and luxurious retirement resort but is actually still being renovated. This means that basic amenities – such as electricity, running water, working telephones, and in some cases, doors – cannot be guaranteed at this point. The owner, the young and hopelessly naïve Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), is a dreamer with a lot of enthusiasm but almost no head for business. He inherited the building from his father with only the hope that he could transform it into a hotel.
The retirees come from different walks of life, and yet all of them are in desperate need of a transformation. Evelyn (Judi Dench) is a newly widowed woman who has inherited all her late husband’s hidden debts. Her computer skills are shoddy, and she has absolutely no work experience, but the prospect of moving in with her son and his family motivates her to strive for independence, which she will hopefully find in India. Graham (Tom Wilkinson) has become disillusioned as a successful High Court judge. Having spent his childhood in India, he decides to return and make peace with his past, which involves an attempt to right a wrong that has plagued him for years. Muriel (Maggie Smith) is a retired housekeeper who desperately needs hip replacement surgery and can only find it in India. The trouble is, her years of insulation from the outside world have made her unpleasantly xenophobic.
Douglas (Bill Nighy) made the mistake of lending his retirement money to his daughter for an internet business that may or may not pan out. In India, he hopes to shed his mild-mannered image and experience something new. The same cannot be said for his wife, Jean (Penelope Wilton), a shallow and profoundly negative woman who resists India with every fiber of her being. She finds herself increasingly drawn to Graham, who secretly goes every day to a local hall of records. Likewise, Douglas finds himself drawn to Evelyn, now a consultant at a telecommunications company. Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup) are both looking for relationships; the former is a multiple divorcee seeking a rich man in exclusive clubs while the latter is a desperately lonely man who missed out earlier in life and just wants a passionate sexual liaison.
As six of these seven characters slowly adapt to the culture and landscape of India, Sonny continues to struggle with the hotel and his personal life, clinging to optimism by little more than his fingernails. He’s in love with Sunaina (Tena Desae), who works at her brother’s call center and is very much modern young woman. Neither situation sits well with Sonny’s traditionalist mother (Lillete Dubey), who wants him in an arranged marriage and doesn’t believe he’s capable of making something out of the hotel. In the meantime, Muriel is the subject of an expected yet appropriate subplot in which she discovers she has something in common with the hotel’s lower-caste Indian housekeeper, who cannot speak English.
Evelyn records her thoughts daily on a blog, in part to appease her disapproving son but mostly as a way to make sense of her surroundings and the new people in her life. Some of her entries serve as voiceover narrations, especially during the latter half of the film, at which point we witness several scenes that are tidy and convenient yet indisputably poignant. She eventually writes out one of Sonny’s lines, transforming it from a desperate plea to a powerful and moving philosophy: “Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, it is not yet the end.” Would the world be a better place if we all adopted this mindset? I’d like to think so. Yes, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is contrived, but I believe its inspiring message more than makes up for that. Sometimes, it’s much healthier to embrace lofty ideals than to blindly accept life’s harsh realities.
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20th Century Fox