The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: Simple but Charming. Reviewed by John Debono

Tena Desae as Sunaina and Dev Patel as Sonny star in THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL. Photo by Ishika Mohan

One of the biggest problems in amateur film criticism is that people have a difficult time separating their personal taste and quality filmmaking. In order to write a fair article, the critic should consider the intentions of the film and whether it accomplishes its goal in a compelling and honest way. For example, a film like John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) is not necessarily intended for someone at my stage in life, but I can acknowledge the film’s success as a heartfelt comedy for an older generation.

An adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s 2004 novel These Foolish Things, the narrative is centered on a group of British retirees who for different reasons fly to the newly restored Marigold Hotel in India. Evelyn (Dame Judi Dench) is a newly widowed housewife, looking to rebuild her life. Douglas and his wife Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Winton) are unable to afford a more conventional retirement. Muriel (Dame Maggie Smith) is in India to have a hip replaced. While Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is a retired high courts judge, looking to reconnect with his youth. All the while, Sonny (Dev Patel) is looking to maintain the survival of the hotel and his relationship with Sunaina (Tena Desae). It is during this experience late in life, that these individuals rediscover themselves.

Judi Dench as Evelyn and Celia Imrie as Madge star in THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL. Photo by Ishika Mohan

If reading this plot synopsis, you make specific assumptions about how the narrative unfolds, you are probably correct. The screenplay by Ol Parker aims for a very specific emotional reaction from the audience and certain conventions sometimes cheapens the overall experience as a result. In particular, it is incredibly frustrating to watch an actress as accomplished and gifted as Smith being limited to the zany, racist elderly character type. These caricatures are also seen in the main narrative progression, the main romantic conflict is structured in a way that there is no dilemma as to what the conclusion should be. While most narratives need to establish a compelling protagonist, an obvious dichotomy will limit the possibility for complexity. These are not traits that are overly distracting while watching the film, but they stay in your memory as problematic aspects.

Fortunately, most of the screenplay’s glaring flaws are redeemed by the excellent work by the cast It is not often that we get to see actresses older than thirty-five get to be stars of a romantic comedy. So for someone as elegant as Dench being given a chance to play someone that is not a historical figure or M is a legitimately exciting opportunity and she is incredibly warm and charming. The cast as a whole is refreshing to watch in the sense that age is not a glaring point of reference for comedy. Instead, the humor comes from these characters comes from their own personalities and trying to confront their own problems with relationships and maturity. The fact the movie does not assume that there is an age restriction to discussing love and sex produces a more universal component.

(L-R) Maggie Smith as Muriel, Ronald Pickup as Norman, Bill Nighy as Douglas, Penelope Wilton as Jean, Cecile Imrie as Madge and Judi Dench as Evelyn in THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL. Photo by Ishika Mohan

However, these stories within the film are shown through the surprisingly modern sensibilities of the background and smaller character arcs. Set in the process of modernization and urbanization in India, the hotel serves as a symbol of the traditional idealism that is lost in the process. A parallel between Patel’s performances here and in Slumdog Millionaire (2008) is almost impossible to ignore but the character of Sonny serves a reminder of his strengths as an actor. Patel has an endearing, scrawny scrapper quality to him that makes the audience root for his success… despite reality. Whether it is difficulties with his business, his family or his girlfriend, it is because of Patel’s natural charm that Sonny’s obsession with the past easy to relate to. The film’s strongest arc comes from Wilkinson’s character returning to India to receive closure over a secret from his past. Without spoiling anything, his story is not only presented in the most delicate manner but mixes that traditional sense of romance with more progressive ideals. It is an example of what The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is in its best moments. The film takes these archetypes and assumptions created by Hollywood about the older generations and are representing them in changing world. Letting the audience see how they can adapt and change with the times.

To end this review, for the most part you can go into a film like John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and understand what to expect from the narrative. What separates this film from others and makes it a special treat for all ages is the way it presents honesty with romance to discuss universal issues.

Author Biography

John Debono’s status as a cinephile began through the combination of Batman and Star Wars movies and Gene Kelly musicals that his Nanna pushed on him at a young age. He is currently a 3rd  year Cinema Studies and Political Studies student at the University of Toronto.

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