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Non-Review Review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

Coming from director John Madden, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is fairly straight-forward in what it offers audiences. Unlike Dev Patel’s entrepreneurial “Sonny”, who lures foreign tourists to his Indian hotel using a carefully photoshopped image, there’s no sense that the movie is in any way misleading. It’s a feel-good travel comedy-drama that throws together a wealth of experienced British talent in a story about embracing life and change and various other wonderful aspects of existence. It’s always thrilling to see these sorts of actors afforded the opportunity to shine, and a huge amount of the appeal of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is in watching its veteran thespians just cut loose and have a bit of fun.

Lounging around...

Similar in character to Madden’s Shakespeare in Love, this film isn’t going to defy too many expectations. Indeed, it adheres fairly rigidly to the formula one expects in a film like this. A bunch of protagonists are whisked away from their mundane lives to a strange new world halfway across the planet. They initially struggle to adapt to their surroundings, but then each finds their niché. Or, in some cases, refuse to find their niché. A movie like this is pretty much all in the execution rather than the concept, and I think Madden has an undeniable skill at bringing these sorts of feel-good stories to life.

It helps that he has assembled a phenomenal cast. The characters are really just a collection of tropes and quirks thrown together – one is a recently widowed old woman with no money, one is returning to correct a past mistake, two are part of an unhappy couple, two refuse to acknowledge they’re growing old. The difference here is the sheer skill with which the actors bring the roles to life. It makes it even more depressing that there are so few roles for older actors and actresses in modern cinema.

Slum(dog)ing it...

Maggie Smith is always a joy to watch, with her drôle Scottish accent. Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup have a bit of fun as the two characters growing old disgracefully. There’s a reason that Judi Dench has become pretty much the defacto casting choice for any woman of a certain age. Penelope Wilton is as solid as ever in an especially under-written role. Tom Wilkinson is reliable in the role with the most dramatic heft.

However, it’s Bill Nighy’s slightly zoned-out, happy-go-lucky portrayal of one half of a bickering couple that offers the stand-out performance of the film. Playing a former civil servant no longer able to keep his wife in the style to which she has become accustomed, he’s wonderfully brow-beaten, while teasing a curious free spirit underneath. “Would it make you feel better if I apologised again?” he asks his wife in a perfectly character defining moment.

Dev Patel typecast as a down-on-his-luck Indian aspiring for a romantic relationship with a girl outside his social station? Never!

The script from Ol Parker is sharp and mostly well-observed, even if it never strays too far outside the conventions that we expect. In particular, I quite liked the opening sequence where Judi Dench’s character is trying to distinguish between “wi-fi” and “wireless” and “broadband.” There are some other nice moments, and the script is never short of wit for its actors to deliver, taking relish in the perfectly-timed zingers. Told how long she’ll be waiting for a hip replacement and discussing long-term plans, Maggie Smith’s character observes,”I don’t even buy green bananas!”

I respect the script for avoiding a few clichés that go with films like this. Indeed, it’s refreshing to see that not all the characters pair off, as seems to be expected in a film like this. Similarly, it’s somewhat nice to see that not every character suddenly makes a life-altering change or so perfectly adapts to life in a completely different country. That said, the script does fall into the standard third-act pitfalls, where it uses various contrivances to ensure a (mostly) happy ending, including revealing skills that some characters never demonstrated before and making various leaps that don’t really stand up to scrutiny if you think about them.

The end is Nighy...

I have to admit, I also like the movie’s portrayal of India, acknowledging some of the more common observations about travel to the country, but not dwelling on them. One character (a prissy character) raises concerns about eating local food, while there’s one joke about the infamous “Delhi Belly” phenomenon. Bill Nighy’s character also experiences first-hand why he should use only official taxi companies, but it’s only mentioned fleetingly and in passing. While part of the plot is based around a call-centre, the movie doesn’t revel in Indian stereotypes.

Rather than playing up the comedy of placing a bunch of British pensioners dropped in the middle of Asia, the movie instead opts to present the differences as coping difficulties with an entirely distinct way of life. Instead of using these points of divergence as cheap culture clash comedy, they instead are cast as inherently optimistic – playing into the movie’s theme that you are never too old to embrace the new and make changes to the way that you live. I might be a romantic at heart, but it’s a fairly feel-good message.

Nothing too exotic here...

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel isn’t exceptionally original. It won’t raise any profound issues, or get you to look at familiar problems in new ways. However, it is charming and witty, and it is brought to the screen by a skilled director and a phenomenal cast. It’s ideal for a short break.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

6 Responses

  1. 3 sounds quite high after seeing this trailer last week. All I could think of was ‘Slumdog Pensionaire’. Lots of accomplished actors doing their thing but just now funny.

    • That’s the problem with a four-point scale. Where does average fit? If 1 is woeful and four is amazing, and I don’t have the luxury of half-points or nul points, then where do perfectly adequate films go? 2 or 3?

      Truth be told, this would be a 3/5 film, and I feel bad about lumping it with Monsiuer Lehzar or Saving the Titanic, that are 4/5 films. On the other hand, it’s a huge improvement over Fort McCoy, which is a 2/5 film, but would be 2/4 on the same scale.

      This is why I don’t like ratings. I tend to be a “big middle” sort of guy.

      • Agree with ratings, and even when they’re available (like IMDB) most people will score good films 8-10 and rubbish films 1-3… I think our schools have a lot to answer for!!!

      • On IMDb, it would have to be bad to score below 3. Really bad. Like, Nicolas Cage and bees bad to score below 3.

  2. I am eagerly anticipating this movie! I totally agree with your comment about the lack of meaty roles for the more mature actors and as a cinema-goer clinging on to my thirties have no reservations about opening my wallet for a movie featuring your “slumdog pensioners!”

    • It’s worth a look. You know what it’s going to be about, and how it’s about it – it’s inoffensive. But there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s light, but it’s entertaining and its great to watch a cast like this having fun together.

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