A group of Britishers find themselves variously disturbed, challenged, charmed and changed by a period spent at an establishment in India…? As coincidence would have it, I re-watched Black Narcissus (1947) shortly before seeing The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011). And, well, the contrast between the two movies is marked, to say the least. For what’s turbulent, mysterious, unnerving and - frankly - erotic in Powell and Pressburger’s film comes out fairly safe, benign, comic and cosy in John Madden’s offering. Watching these two films, it’s easy to conclude that British cinema hasn’t so much progressed as regressed within the past 65 years. And yet the new film - indifferently reviewed but number one at the box office - has some elements of appeal.
Based on Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel deposits its group of ageing-to-elderly characters (played by Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup) at the Bangalore hotel of the title, a ramshackle guesthouse presided over by the eager though put-upon Sonny (a game but over-effusive Dev Patel). The group are there for a variety of contrived reasons - landing a job, having a hip replacement, tracking down an old lover, getting laid - and the film puts them through a variety of changes, some less predictable than others, it must be said.
India’s impact upon the English has of course been a popular topic for novelists and filmmakers, but The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel can’t be said to add a great deal to the culture-clash theme. At times - notably an unfortunate scene in which Dench’s character advises a group of Indian workers on what constitutes a good telephone manner - the picture acts as though postcolonialism had never happened. It’s not offensive, exactly: just oblivious.
Visually, the movie is mediocre - sallow-looking and poorly lit for the most part - and the script, by Ol Parker, feels under-worked. Wispy plot strands dangle loosely, and the tedious caste-crossing love story that constitutes Patel’s part of the proceedings generates zero interest. Indeed, the treatment of sexual and class issues leaves something to be desired. The melancholy gay character, “sympathetically” presented as he is, achieves a long-awaited moment of fulfilment and redemption - only to keel over dead a few minutes later. And it’s interesting that it’s the working-class character - dropping aitches and “comic” racist epithets - who’s initially made the biggest bigot, all the better to reveal her heart-of-gold by sympathetically connecting with an “untouchable” later in the film.
That The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel remains moderately enjoyable despite its obvious shortcomings is down to its deluxe cast, who contribute some believable human touches to their characterisations. Dench brings her special radiance - emotional transparency with a hint of something secret in reserve - to Evelyn, the cautious widow emerging from her comfort zone to embrace the possibility of change. Walking the teeming streets, she looks both touchingly vulnerable and heroically alert to new experiences. Quavering in Cockney, Maggie Smith reveals Muriel’s skills and sympathy as briskly and unsentimentally as she’s able. Tom Wilkinson underplays beautifully as he suggests the deep regrets that have haunted his character for decades. And Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy sketch a marital history that comes out more nuanced, interesting and authentic than the Tom-and-Gerri love-in in Mike Leigh’s Another Year (2010).
Some of the performers aren’t so lucky - though enjoyable enough, Imrie and Pickup get most of the broad comedy bits, while Diana Hardcastle (responsible for one of my favourite moments on stage last year in A Delicate Balance with Wilton) is wasted as Carol, the lonely woman who Pickup finally scores with. Even so, it’s pleasurable to see such a strong British cast together on screen and the film does at least have the wit to play off of the actors’ previous collaborations at times; in particular, there’s a lovely brief exchange between Smith and Dench at the end in which the spirit of their history of film and stage partnerships is felt, ever so lightly.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel doesn’t have the charm of a comparable starry exercise in elderly empowerment such as Franco Zeffirelli's Tea with Mussolini (1999). But through the artistry of its actors, a fairly shallow enterprise gets a little bit of soul.