Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Raj Revisited. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: A Review

THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is an Anglophiles dream come true.  You not only have a cavalcade of some of the best British actors working today (and Dev Patel), but you also have a very odd sense that this is the India the former rulers always wanted: one where they came around, discovered how nice it all is, and decided to not only stay but help run the place.  Rule Britannia indeed! 

BEMH knows pretty much what it is: a light life-affirming film that tells one to go for your dreams crossed with 'it's never too late/you're never too old', and it doesn't stray far from that.  It is blessed, though, with a dream cast that if it were a period piece or a drama, would already be on many an Oscar shortlist.  Being a comedy, well, that's still technically possible, but now I'm getting ahead of myself.

In quick succession we meet all the travellers, all in their twilight years.  Evelyn (Dame Judi Dench) is a recent widow unfamiliar with technology (like all old people) who is facing financial hardship.  Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is a judge who has grown tired of the routine.  Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) are a retired civil servant and wife who find their pension doesn't cover a good retirement in the U.K.  Muriel (Dame Maggie Smith) is a working-class woman not taking kindly to all these "foreigners" in her Britain but one in need of a new hip.  Norman (the brilliantly named Ronald Pickup) is an aging Lothario who finds rather slim pickings these days.  Madge (Celia Imrie) is a swingin' single gal in search of a wealthy suitor (think Blache Devareux's British cousin).

All except Graham find the pound doesn't go far today, but it goes very far in the land of the rupee.  All except Graham and Muriel decide to spend their retirement at a place billed as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful (if anything, Indians have a way with words).  Graham goes to India for his own private reasons which will be revealed as the film goes along.  Muriel goes there to get hip replacement surgery faster and cheaper.  Bigotry, I suppose, must give way to cost.

After a bit of difficulty they arrive at the hotel, run by (very) eager Sonny (Patel), whose enthusiasm for things cannot mask that the place is a wreck.  In typical British aplomb, they decide to make the best of it (save for Jean, who finds the whole thing odious, scoring one for the imperialists).  Muriel goes through the surgery and will have to wait out her recovery, all while having to be surrounded by Indians (which I understand, makes up a majority in India).  Evelyn, who had been sheltered all her life, finds a job as cultural advisor at a call center, where Sonny's girlfriend Sunaina (Tena Desae) works at.  Jean won't leave the premises, but her henpecked husband Douglas does, finding he can function rather well in new and exotic surroundings.  Madge begins her man hunt, while Norman finds the hunting still a bit dicey.

Graham, however, has the most to lose.  He had grown up in India, and before he left he'd had a summer romance there.  Now he seeks out his former lover...a man, named Menoj.  In short order, Evelyn not only finds a job to be a delight but finds the Internet is quite easy (even keeping a blog that provides a voiceover to BEMG).  She also finds a growing friendship with Douglas. Muriel finds that Indians (even the Untouchables) are all pretty good people, even a bit like her.  Graham does find his long-lost love (and his remarkably understanding wife) but dies right afterwards.  With Claire as a mentor (or would it be mentress), Norman begins to fine-tune his romantic skills, and finds romance with Carol (Diane Hardcastle) a Briton whose lived her whole life in India. 

Not everything goes well however: Jean becomes suspicious of Douglas' growing friendship with Evelyn (even if their behavior suggests nothing more than a deep friendship) and detests everything about this land.  In the end, the signs (or gods, however you have it) point to the obvious: Douglas and Evelyn should be together, Sonny and Sunaina should be together.  It even points to the not-so-obvious: Muriel is the best suited to actually run things.

As I took a quick look-round the audience, I felt as if I were one of the few people in the theater who wasn't alive when India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire.  I think this was as it should be: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel appears targeted towards the senior set, to remind them that one never stops living or loving or laughing until one literally stops living.   Since that is the case, BEMH does not lie to us and should be appreciated for the positive messages within it.

One also has to look at the breath of talent in front of the camera and realize BEMH is a showcase for the elder statesmen of the British stage and screen.  Wilton and Smith have a reunion of sorts (both of them starring in the wildly popular Downton Abbey series).  Here, they get a chance to not only play contemporary characters, but also roles outside their usual screen personas.  It really isn't often when Smith plays anything other than either dotty or haughty but always well-born ladies, so seeing her play a working-class figure is a revelation of sorts.  She handles the bigotry behind Muriel as less actual hatred and more a fear of the unknown.  Wilton still plays a middle-class character, but here, she isn't a compassionate and intelligent woman.  Instead, she is a bigot in her own way, a deeply unhappy woman dissatisfied with where she is at. 

Still, it is a credit to both Smith and Wilton that neither of them came across as evil or horrid people, but instead as deeply flawed.  However, since we are talking about Dame Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton, we can trust that we will see great performances.

The other dame, Judi Dench, at times may come close to veering towards "old people don't understand technology", but the compassion and eagerness to learn new things comes through in Evelyn's kindness and wisdom.  As the eager woman Madge, Imrie never makes her a tart.  Instead, she is just a woman who is looking for if not love at least a wealthy suitor to keep her well. 

The best performance in BEMH is Nighy (whom oddly, I never thought of as old, but I digress).  He does so much by doing so little, his Douglas expressing either repressed hopes or joyful discoveries in a quiet demeanor.  It's in his joys of being able to fix the plumbing at the hotel, it's his self-amazement at being able to bargain (or not) at the local bazaars where Nighy excels.  Wilkinson isn't far from him as the sure but reticent judge, seeking out his long-lost love and making the discovery that how he imagined things was not the way things were.  Pickup (again, a great name for someone playing a frustrated pickup artist) added a roguish element of humor in his Norman, but one who is also more than the sum of his parts.

I can't fault Patel in his broadly comic role of the over-eager Sonny.  Whether it was a rather broad performance or not I leave to you.  However, given that this is a comedy and not to be taken too seriously, we cut him some slack.

On the whole, John Madden directed his cast smoothly, with each story balancing itself out rather well without coming at the expense of the others.  Ol Parker's adaptation of Deborah Moggach's These Foolish Things had a strong sense of humor and witty lines that both brought laughs and revealed much about the characters.  In her anger at Douglas, Jean snaps, "When I want your opinion I'll give it to you".  When Jean mentions with joy that she and Douglas are going to celebrate their 40th anniversary, she tells her group, "We haven't decided how to mark (it)".  Claire quietly replies to all of them, "Perhaps with a moment of silence". 

I can't find much fault in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, save perhaps for Sonny's excessive efforts to please and convince everyone around him that he is competent to run anything.   His "words of wisdom" at times make him look either foolish or almost insane.  For example, when Jean complains loudly about the conditions of the hotel, he tells her, "In India, we have a saying: everything will be all right in the end, so if it's not all right, it's not the end".  It sounds good, but it doesn't get Jean a good meal (a good British meal).

Finally, I digress to say one can see BEMH as an exercise in Western imperialism.  Things at the hotel and with the Indian characters aren't good until the British come along to sort everything out.  If one wants to read a sense of superiority in the film one is welcome to, but I would argue that the film is suppose to seen through the senior British characters and how India affected them, not about how they affected India or the Indian characters.   

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a sweet film that seeks only to please (not unlike Sonny).  It has a host of Britain's best actors, making it an actor's showcase.  It has a positive message that can be summed up thus: the only real failure is the failure to try.  I can say that while The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel isn't a brilliant film (one pretty much knows where it is going to go), it did have an odd effect on me.  It made me think my own life is glorious and run to hug my mother.  Make of that what you will, but as for me, it is certainly worth a visit. 

DECISION: B-

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