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NEW YORK – Some will doubtless roll their cynical eyes, but many of us are suckers for gray-liberation movies in which the English break out of their emotionally constricted shells abroad, frequently stumbling upon the lost spirit of their youth in the process. It’s hard to go wrong when you assemble actors of the caliber of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson, and that cast alone should provide Fox Searchlight with a tidy international audience for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Director John Madden’s captivating seriocomedy, set against the bustle and color of Jaipur, India, will be a particular crowdpleaser among the under-served over-60 demographic. Adapted by Ol Parker from Deborah Moggach’s novel, “These Foolish Things,” the story has its share of mechanical developments. But even at its most predictable, the winning characterizations and soulful insights into aging keep the handsome film on a warmly satisfying track.
Slapping their names up on the screen, Madden and Parker introduce each of the central characters in an extended pre-titles sequence that plants them all at awkward crossroads.
Forced to sell her London flat to pay off her husband’s mountain of debt, recently widowed Evelyn (Dench) is reluctant to move in with their son’s family. High Court Judge Graham (Wilkinson) is retiring after a long and respected career. Mild-mannered Douglas (Nighy) and his joyless snob of a wife, Jean (Penelope Wilton), have sunk their retirement funds into their daughter’s failed Internet startup. Madge (Celia Imrie) is too frisky to stay home playing granny, and randy old Norman (Ronald Pickup) can no longer continue lying about his age on dating sites. Muriel (Smith) is a long-serving housekeeper put out to pasture by her employers and now in urgent need of a hip replacement, which is prohibitively expensive or requires a long wait in England.
Responding to an advertisement for a “luxury development for residents in their golden years,” they fly to India. Strangers on arrival, they all seek some ineffable transformation, whether it’s independence, companionship, adventure, reconciliation with the past or simple dignity.
They receive an effusive welcome from Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), a well-intentioned but disorganized young entrepreneur who inherited the once-grand hotel from his father. But it soon becomes clear that improvements on the dilapidated property have stalled. In addition to a retreating investor, Sonny faces obstacles from his overbearing mother (Lillette Dubey). She aims to force him into a more secure business and an arranged marriage, frowning on his far-too-modern girlfriend (Tena Desae).
While Parker’s screenplay is schematic, it elegantly traces the ways in which the Marigold guests adapt to their chaotic new surroundings. For some, like Evelyn and Douglas, the freeing effects are almost instantaneous, establishing them as kindred spirits and seeding a gentle flirtation. For Muriel, an unapologetic racist who just wants a new hip and a fast ticket home, the humanization happens despite her worst instincts when she inadvertently shows kindness to a lower-caste hotel housekeeper. Jean, by contrast, becomes more entrenched in her resistance to anything new and unknown.
The most affecting thread follows Graham, the sole member of the group with a previous connection to India, having spent his privileged childhood there. A gay man “more in theory than in practice nowadays,” he has lived with regret and self-recrimination since returning to England to go to college. He left behind the love of his youth to face what he assumes was a life of shame. Observed with sensitivity and played with a deep well of sorrow by Wilkinson, this story breathes real tenderness into the movie’s reflections on growing older and making peace with past mistakes.
The heart of the film, however, is Evelyn, whose blog entries, heard in voiceover, provide a running commentary. It’s news to nobody at this point that Dench is a class act, and she depicts with the most delicate of brushstrokes the late-in-life reflowering of a woman previously defined through her marriage. Nighy matches Dench with his subtle work. Playing a droll variation on the henpecked husband, he shrugs off Jean’s barbs until her unrelenting negativity causes Douglas to explode in a terrific confrontation. Wilton is all brittleness and pretentious airs (“Obviously, one’s read one’s Kipling”), but even Jean is allowed a hint of redemptive humanity in Parker’s generous screenplay.
On the heels of her peerless work in Downton Abbey, it’s refreshing to see quintessential toff Smith play working-class. Her turnabout is perhaps too abrupt to be believed, but the actress deftly handles sour Muriel’s gradual discovery of a new sense of purpose as she assumes a decisive role in the hotel’s survival. Imrie and Pickup play it a little broader but with brio nonetheless. And in the most substantial of the Indian roles, Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) brings an appealing grasp of gangly physical comedy. He pushes the ingratiating, over-caffeinated ethnic stereotype in ways that offset the generally more understated work of the senior cast.
Cinematographer Ben Davis puts a crisp gloss on the Rajasthan locations, his cameras opting for vigorous mobility or serenity as the immediate environment dictates. And Thomas Newman’s flavorful score adds to the intoxicating sensory overload. The film’s pacing may be a touch leisurely for some, but its core audience no doubt will relish having time to savor the rewards of a mellow story about endearing characters learning that change is never entirely out of reach.
Opens: Feb. 24, U.K.; May 4, U.S. (Fox Searchlight)
Production companies: Blueprint Pictures, Participant Media, ImageNation Abu Dhabi
Cast: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, Tm Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Tena Desae, Sid Makkar, Lillette Dubey, Diana Hardcastle
Director: John Madden
Screenwriters: Ol Parker, based on the novel “These Foolish Things,” by Deborah Moggach
Producer: Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Ricky Strauss, Jonathan King
Director of photography: Ben Davis
Production designer: Alan MacDonald
Music: Thomas Newman
Costume designer: Louise Stjernsward
Editor: Chris Gill
Rated PG-13, 123 minutes
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