A lightweight yarn about elderly Brits who decide to retire to sunny India, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel occasionally delves into meatier subject matter, but only occasionally, and not for very long.
In gray, oppressive England, a cross-section of retirement-minded citizens contemplate their future. The sclerotic, racist Muriel (Maggie Smith) needs a new hip but will have to wait a lifetime under the local healthcare system, so her doctor recommends traveling to India for the operation. Meanwhile, the unhappily married Jean (Penelope Wilton) and Douglas (Bill Nighy) are touring English retirement communities and contemplating spending their golden years in a cramped first-floor apartment with a built-in panic button for sudden falls. Evelyn (Judi Dench) is widowed and shouldering a hefty debt bequeathed by her husband, while posh retiring High Court judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson) spent some blissful early years in India and longs to return. And two singles, Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Madge (Celia Imrie), still feel randy and vibrant, but can’t find a mate to second that opinion.
For different reasons, this eclectic group of retirees head to a decrepit historic hotel in Jaipur that advertises a space “for the elderly and beautiful.” And admittedly, they are a comely lot, considering. The bright-eyed and snow-capped Dench makes old age look like an exquisite adventure, while Nighy remains slinky, subversive, and charm-incarnate at age 62. Upon their arrival, the retirees encounter a crumbling ruin overseen by an enthusiastic young Indian, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel, star of Slumdog Millionaire), who believes he can resurrect the Marigold to its former glory. In a subplot as expected as rain in England, Sonny struggles to keep the Marigold open despite his disapproving mother’s desire to shut the place down.
Based on Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things, director John Madden’s (Shakespeare in Love) film boasts some funny jokes about elder-confusion over just what the internet entails, and some less funny ones about Viagra. There is very little that happens that is unexpected, from romantic couplings to plot twists, but a whole lot that beggars belief. It is also no small wonder that the browbeaten, long-suffering Douglas begins to eye the lovely, tragic, but adventurous widow who discovers a newfound sense of self-worth in India.
Madden isn’t out to shake things up or break a nail charting uncharted territory. It’s a pity, really, that he takes the easy road when there is much substance in this story about people who have been deemed irrelevant on one continent but can rediscover themselves on another. The premise of the film is that first-world retirement is just too out of the reach of the elderly: too expensive, too depressing, too marginalized. Marigold is not the thoughtful film about the real, depressing erosion of old age and the sense of watching your life becoming more and more marginal.
Like a cruise through the Middle East where all meals are taken onboard and the sea is calm, Madden’s not one to offer much in the way of the eventful or unexpected. He knows what he has, which is a solid cast, sprinkled with some genuine greatness in the form of Dench, Nighy, and Wilkinson. What he also has is an audience that will reliably eat this porridge up with a big spoon.