A frustrated husband asks his angry wife, “Would it be worth it if I apologized to you again?” She responds with “No, but you can try.” An old man, trying to impress upon a younger woman his desirability, claims “I still have it.” When she leaves, he laments, “But nobody wants it.” A snobby dowager in a foreign country is offered an hors d’ouvre. She tells the waiter, “If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t want it.”
This is just a sample of the dialogue in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, sophisticated and sharp in the best tradition of British wit. The screenplay is attributed to Ol Parker, but in all probability, most of the best lines are derived from the novel by Deborah Moggach, a much-admired writer who has published sixteen novels.
The pleasure of the words is complimented by the acting of some of the most honored veterans of British film and television, such as the Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, as well as Tom Wilkinson, and Bill Nighy. The rest of the cast, which includes Dev Patel, most famous for “Slumdog Millionaire?”, are equally praiseworthy.
The narrative explores the theme of old age with compassion and humor, and all of its principle characters evolve, with even the most unsympathetic finally revealing a vulnerable humanity. Combined with the beautiful cinematography, by Ben Davis, capturing scenes of authentic life in India, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” has all the recommended ingredients for a first-rate entertainment, and for the most part it is.
The story deals with a group of British seniors who, for a variety of reasons, leave England and relocate to a dilapidated old hotel in India. One couple has lost their pension in a failed venture, and now has to live more cheaply. Near-poverty is what also motivates a widow to accompany them, after she sells her property to pay for her husband’s debts. Meanwhile a newly retired judge wants to return to India and find the man with whom he had a passionate gay affair during his youth.
One old man leaves in order to pursue better romantic possibilities with the opposite sex, while another woman goes to India because she is bored with her life. And finally, there is a retired governess in a wheelchair, availing herself of an opportunity to obtain a new hip without the six month wait of the British public health system.
Thus, except for the judge, none are in India for positive reasons. Furthermore, there are tensions among them; the couple, despite having been married for nearly 40 years, are not happy with each other, and the wife, in fact, is eager to consider an illicit relationship with somebody new. The old lecher annoys the other women due to his guileless overtures. The governess, who does not even regard native-born non-Caucasians in England as British citizens, manages to offend the local population in India because of her bigotry.
In addition to this, as a counterpoint to the various dramas involving the retirees, there is the young administrator of the hotel, who has an ambitious desire to transform the property into a world-famous success, and to marry his girlfriend, but he faces some of his own daunting obstacles in achieving both, his proudly patrician mother in particular.
Overall, this is first-rate entertainment, but I had one notable reservation. Whereas by the end of the film, all the heterosexual characters not only survive, but are offered new romantic possibilities, the gay judge, who mysteriously has spent his entire adult life in London alone, dies after he finds his former lover, now married.
This element of the plot feels not only excessively melodramatic, but also unrealistic – there is no plausible explanation as to why he was voluntarily single for forty years of his life. In the real world both he and the old heterosexual womanizer would more probably avail themselves of the many young locals ready to involve themselves with a Caucasian foreigner. Could it be that the filmmakers were trying to have it both ways, presenting themselves as “progessive” by offering a “sympathetic” gay character, but without risking alienating moviegoers by showing him in a genuine relationship with another man? Nonetheless, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, currently at Cine Hoyts, is a refreshingly intelligent experience.