Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
What can you do to make yourself happy? And what can you expect from others in your pursuit of such happiness? These are the questions that lie at the heart of the film "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel". The 2011 film by director John Madden from a script by Ol Parker (based on the novel by Deborah Moggach) was only recently released in U.S. theaters, but it is well worth the wait.
The story involves a group of assorted English retirees who decide to take up residence in what they were led to believe is an exotic but inexpensive retirement community located in Jaipur, India. When they arrive their expectations are dashed, finding the brochures were photoshopped and the facility is in disrepair. This serves as a metaphor for their lives, where they were promised much and were not satisfied with what they received.
One of the most prominent characters was Graham Dashwood (played by Tom Wilkinson), a former British high court judge raised in India who hoped to return his birth land to find a part of him that he had left behind. Another is Evelyn Greenslade (played by Judi Dench), a gentle widowed housewife who feels that she must stand on her own for the first time in her life, moving thousands of miles from her adult children. Then there is Douglas Ainslie (delightfully played by Bill Nighy) and his wife Jean Ainslie (played by Penelope Wilton), a retired yet optimistic civil servant and his pessimistic wife who are pinched financially due to a loan to their daughter of much of their savings. Additional retirees include Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), a bigoted maid in need of a cheap hip replacement; Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) a sharp-tongued widow looking to find a quality new husband; and Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup), a lonely old man in search of a lonely old woman. Finally there is Sonny Kappoor (Dev Patel), the well-meaning but hapless young hotel manager who lives by the slogan "Everything will be alright in the end; so if things are not alright, it is not yet the end".
All of the actors are excellent performers, each making it difficult to imagine their other roles, which is an impressive task; I have not a bad word to say about any of the performances. Judi Dench has played queens and a spymaster, yet here she displays a very convincing vulnerability. Bill Nighy is barely recognizable from his roles as a vampire king or pirate sea monster, playing a very sympathetic henpecked husband in this film. And Tom Wilkinson has played a general, a mob boss, and a stripper but here he plays a quiet, respectable gay man who travels around the world to reclaim his lost youth and finds that everything is alright. No "scene-chewing" is needed here, as the talented thespians draw you into their characters with a subtlety and deftness rarely seen in films released in the summer.
Like all great stories, "Best Exotic..." tries to ask questions leaving the answers up to the audience. Should you settle for love? Should you love for duty? How do you balance your duties to your loved ones and to yourself? How do you cope when those to whom you dutifully serve reject you?
The film smartly asks these questions by showing both the culture shock and familiarity of the denizens of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful" to the city of Jaipur. Jaipur is not the most familiar of Indian cities to westerners, and like many parts of the world is struggling to maintain its cultural heritage while modernizing to the 21st Century. Yet the beautifully filmed scenes evoke that tension well, with motorcycles dodging through traffic with elephants, 500-year old buildings trying to offer wi-fi access, swimming pools that look like they came out of an M.C. Escher drawing, and magnificent ancient Hindu temples within sight of, yes, call enters.
While the acting is exemplary and the script/novel outstanding, the direction in the film is merely functional. This is not an insult; perhaps the best thing Madden could have done with this cast, story, and dialogue is hand the actors their lines, point the camera in the right direction and then get out of the way. Without inventing new cinematographic flourishes, John Madden has still delivered the finest film I've seen all year.
Moreover, "Best Exotic..." works as a metaphor not just for individuals facing life in their twilight years, but also for Englishmen and Europeans as a whole. What does it mean to face one's senescence, having to entrust yourself and the future to those whom you may have treated with disdain and/or ignorance? You will leave this film thinking about it, and the answer is up to you.