Director John Madden’s feel-good The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, about a group of English retirees living in the faded glory of an old hotel in India, unites the acting talents of Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Judi Dench and Bill Nighy. When they are all assembled, each in their various stages of aging—Smith pinched, Wilkinson haggard, Dench plump, Nighy simultaneously shrinking and bending into a more perfect depiction of a string bean—there is the anticipation that these combined forces of British acting superpower will generate some magic. Maybe they could conjure Sir Laurence Olivier from the dead, or at the least, cause PG Tips to rain from the sky.
But the feat of these Dames and gents is that they transcend the traces of cutesy yuck (like Viagra acquisition and a septuagenarian tendency to be baffled by technology) and turn this senior citizen version of Enchanted April or Love Actually into a charming celebration of aging. There are brutal truths about the declining years in Best Exotic, from loneliness to financial woes that can’t be solved by getting a new job, but they are amply padded with comedy and cheery messages about acceptance; this is no bitter pill to swallow.
The retirees, seven in all, are summoned to the Best Exotic Marigold by enterprising young Sonny (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel, still cute, still bland) who has a dream to “outsource old age” by bringing old people unwanted in their own country to live in India. He’ll start with the English and expand from there. As he tells his disapproving mother, “other countries don’t like old people either.”
(READ: Maggie Smith and Harry Potter’s other Great British Thespians)
Most of the guests are financially insecure and Madden (Shakespeare in Love) doesn’t shy away from a pointed message; England has become a cold, hard place to be old. (Ol Parker wrote the screenplay, adapting Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things.) Evelyn’s (Dench, in a welcome change, playing vulnerable) recently deceased husband racked up years of debt; the sheltered housewife has had to sell her flat and needs to take a job at a call center to be able to afford the Best Exotic. Retired civil servant Douglas (Nighy) and his grasping wife Jean (the uncannily good Penelope Wilton) invested in their daughter’s startup and are left with nothing. Retired maid Muriel “Mrs. Donnelly” (Smith) needed a new hip; India was the cheapest, fastest place to get one.
Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Madge (Celia Imrie) are both randy and single, generally a toxic comic combination in cinema but Madden blends the comedy with enough compassion to make them endearing. “I’ve still got it,” Norman says. “I just can’t find anyone who wants it.” This notion of being done, against their will, plagues all of the characters to some degree or other. They’re all on quests. High court judge Graham (Wilkinson in one of his most tender performances), is looking for a lost love, others quietly hope for new loves, security and opportunities to feel useful in the world, beyond babysitting for their grandchildren.
It’s the varied degree of their adaptations to sensual, seedy India that drives the story, with Evelyn providing an elderly Carrie Bradshaw-style narration via her blog (which she posts on the “Interweb”). Graham grew up in colonized India and sees good all around him, in “the light, the colors, the smiles, the way people see life as a privilege and not a right.” The shrewish Jean poses the greatest contrast, fussing about the food and refusing to leave the hotel (sidenote: she spends most of her days reading Moggach’s Tulip Fever). Her beleaguered husband Douglas, who forms an easy bond with Evelyn, falls somewhere in between. “One wants to trust in general,” he says. “But you never really know.”
One doesn’t. One has to take a chance, you see. The pronoun “one” is tossed about a lot here, but the movie has the self-awareness to joke about it, as well as the British tendency to whither. While Smith is playing someone far afield socially from Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess, she never misses a chance to look down her nose. “Words fail me,” Mrs. Donnelly says, when asked about the accommodations at the Best Exotic. Not as weapons they don’t. “He can wash all he wants, that color isn’t coming out,” she says of a black doctor. This is the nastiest character Smith has played in years, and Best Exotic is at its weakest when trying to persuade us Mrs. Donnelly can open her mind. (If Wilton, well known for her Downton Abbey character, sanctimonious cousin Isobel, were playing Mrs. Donnelly you’d want to push her wheelchair off a balcony.) But Smith…God, she’s good. The woman milks our affection for her so expertly that I nearly found myself shifting obediently to the idea of Mrs. Donnelly’s reform.
I’ve adopted a binge policy where she and Dench are concerned. Both of them will turn 78 this year. While they are still working, I’ll take every opportunity to see them perform, particularly together. They have shared the screen (and stage) before, in A Room with a View, Tea with Mussolini and most recently in 2004’s Ladies in Lavender, where they played sisters, but Best Exotic still feels like an occasion. It may be geared to the over-60 set, but unlike last month’s ode to aging, Darling Companion, it is by no means limited to that group. “It will make you want to be old!” a publicist chirped on my way in. I am fairly sure I shot her a disbelieving look, but I did walk out thinking spending the end of my days hanging out with Smith and Dench, drinking tea in our sumptuous and capacious paisley tunics at the Best Exotic, would be pretty sweet.
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Lawrence Kasdan’s Darling Companion)