Despite some minor shortcomings, this baby boomer travel flick is a charming, colourful romp with a stellar cast, as Kahla Preston writes.
When travel films tend to focus on either raucous groups of university graduates (Road Trip) or disillusioned thirty-somethings seeking enlightenment in piles of Italian food (Eat, Pray, Love), it’s refreshing to find something targeted at one of the world’s largest tourism markets: the retirees. Somehow the film industry has been oblivious to the swarms of baby boomers currently traversing the globe and spending the inheritance of their offspring.
The latest release from director John Madden, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a delightful, if slightly twee, ensemble dramedy that unites some of the most revered figures of British acting royalty. The film focuses on a motley group of retirees confronted by the high price of living out their golden years in England. Recently widowed Evelyn (the formidable Judy Dench) is struggling to pay off her debts following the death of her husband. Unashamedly racist former housekeeper Muriel (Maggie Smith) requires a hip replacement but can’t afford the procedure at home. High Court judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson) has unfinished business in India, where he lived until the age of 18. Jean (Penelope Wilton) and Doug (Bill Nighy) can barely keep their heads above water after investing in their daughter’s online start-up business, while singletons Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup) hope to find partners and relive their youth.
They travel to Jaipur, lured by the affordable luxury promised by the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a retiree resort. On arrival, they discover a dilapidated establishment run by optimistic local boy Sunny (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel), where the doors don’t close and the cuisine provokes frequent visits to the toilet. This is where the fun and, in true cinema fashion, life-changing discoveries, take place. Each character responds differently to their colourful, overwhelming new environment. Evelyn finds employment for the first time and Jean actively avoids leaving the hotel, while Graham sneaks out every day in search of something, or someone, from his past.
In many ways, you sit down to watch this film knowing exactly what to expect, and it delivers. Yes, the city and people of Jaipur have an indelible effect on each character; prejudices are confronted, relationships are re-evaluated and new life ambitions become evident. In many ways, it serves as inspiration for baby boomers who are approaching their senior years and wondering what lies ahead. More cynical viewers will roll their eyes at the astonishing speed with which character arcs come full circle. This is clearest when Muriel, whose dialogue is comprised mainly of cringe-inducing racist outbursts, suddenly forges a close friendship with one of the hotel’s maids. However, regardless of the caricature-like elements of the role, Maggie Smith’s unique brand of comic timing ensures Muriel never strays into the ridiculous.
Yet there are some unexpectedly moving moments in the film that easily outshine the more predictable plot turns. The revelation of Graham’s secret touches on universal experiences of lost love and opportunities, while Jean and Doug’s relationship reaches a junction that is bittersweet yet incredibly honest. The tales of the hotel’s inhabitants run in tandem with Sunny’s own experience of standing up in the face of his family’s disapproval; Dev Patel delivers another spot-on performance. The intertwined stories of love, loss and self-discovery are beautifully complemented by the backdrop of Jaipur, a blur of luscious hues and sensory overload that will have anybody with even the slightest inclination towards travel running to book a ticket.
Despite its minor flaws, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a thoroughly enjoyable 123 minutes of cinema, with an impeccable cast and a feel-good ending that earn it a prime position on your DVD shelf. It’s a touching reminder that life is full of places and people to discover, and that age is no barrier to starting over.
Watch the trailer here: