“You won’t see better for your grey pound”
The opening quarter of John Madden’s film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel might leave you wondering about the state of British comedy and our collective tastes, given that it really was quite the box office success in 2011. A unconnected collection of retired and retiring Brits all decide to up sticks and move to a hotel in the Indian city of Jaipur, though it turns out the judicious use of Photoshop means it is not quite the luxurious venue it has set itself up to be. Their reasons for going are various – personal, medical, debt-fuelled – and as we delve into each of these characters, we see how their journeys are just as much emotional as they are physical.
The film’s success was practically guaranteed with its luxurious casting of the crème de la crème of this particular age bracket – Judi Dench, Celia Imrie, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, its pretty much a dream collection and they add a veneer of class to the whole film which pulls it through its undoubtedly tricksier moments. These come during the aforementioned opening section which seems to set the film up as a broad culture-clash comedy, poking easy fun at the discomfort of elderly travellers arriving in a completely foreign land. Is it funny? Are racist comments in this context acceptable because they’re delivered with a wonderfully acerbic bite by Maggie Smith? I guess it is a decision you make for yourself but it feels a fine line.
But something happens as the film progresses and it focuses more on the reasons that the travellers are there as opposed to the repeated bad food/diarrhea/broken tap nonsense. Madden taps into many of the pressing fears and realities facing older people – the terror of facing operations alone, the difficulties of widowhood, the difficulties of meeting new people too, the realisation that a lifetime might indeed have been shaped by a single bad decision but that it isn’t necessarily the end. And delivered by this cast, you believe pretty much every single one of them.
Dench’s anguish at finding her late husband has left massive debts behind, forcing her into work; Nighy’s freewheeling charisma constrained by Wilton’s harridan-like nature; Imrie and Pickup’s delicious antics as the singles forever on the hunt; Wilkinson’s heartbreaking search for a significant figure from his past. But it is Smith, whose cantankerous former housekeeper having a hip replacement on the quick and cheap, who goes on the biggest ‘journey’ and is thus given the room to spread her not inconsiderable dramatic wings. As the story winds to its predictably sentimental ending, it is clear that much rides on the talent of the cast as opposed to anything else but stick with it, it is much better than its opening might have you believe.