By Richard von Busack
IF The Avengers featured British pensioners, it would be The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel tickets and showtimes here.) Senior citizens deserve this reward; they’re good and faithful moviegoers. Based on Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a summit for British thespians as several distinguished elders meet in a story held together by a peeling retirement hotel in Jaipur, a Raj-era ruin.
The old folks have fled the expense of England for retirement in Rajasthan, and they respond to this landscape in different ways. A widow (Judi Dench) gradually blossoms; a married man (Bill Nighy) shows modest enchantment; a wizened gent (Ronald Pickup) expands his randy goatishness; a wife (Penelope Wilton) responds with absolute disgust to the heat and noise and spices and insects and the filth. Wilton demonstrates the power of a fine actress to make you feel for a character you’d happily kill in real life.
Some Desi-interest arises in the form of the Marigold’s hapless manager Sonny (Dev Patel). Sonny’s avoidance of an arranged marriage provides perfunctory under-60 love interest. Patel is very funny, but he’s funny in what George Orwell described as “the comic babu of the Punch tradition.” Sonny, for instance, tells his guests that he understands their agedness: “You have heard the chimes at midnight, and you have grown long in the tooth.”
So it goes for Ol Parker’s script, with its shrewd use of the sometimes-maligned expression “one.” “Obviously, one’s read one’s Kipling,” says a traveler now wise to the ways of India, with its famous mongooses and cobras. These transplants all describe themselves as “one,” as if they’re not sure if they’re even a one anymore. The elongated, apologetic Nighy uses that self-effacing word with the most feeling.
But watching something impressive, such as the scene of Tom Wilkinson’s Graham sitting in a garden and unfolding on his personal life, I thought, “This is really fine playwriting. Too bad it’s a film.”
And the arc careens too high for Maggie Smith—very funny, but plaintive, just as she was in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Here, she plays a terrified Cockney racist who suddenly proves her unlikely superpowers. For every one hackneyed incident in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel there are five examples of actorly steel, however tarnished by the years.