NEW YORK â Some will doubtless roll their cynical eyes, but many of us are suckers for gray-liberation movies in which the English break out of their emotionally constricted shells abroad, frequently stumbling upon the lost spirit of their youth in the process. Itâs hard to go wrong when you assemble actors of the caliber of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson, and that cast alone should provide Fox Searchlight with a tidy international audience for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Director John Maddenâs captivating seriocomedy, set against the bustle and color of Jaipur, India, will be a particular crowdpleaser among the under-served over-60 demographic. Adapted by Ol Parker from Deborah Moggachâs novel, âThese Foolish Things,â the story has its share of mechanical developments. But even at its most predictable, the winning characterizations and soulful insights into aging keep the handsome film on a warmly satisfying track.
Slapping their names up on the screen, Madden and Parker introduce each of the central characters in an extended pre-titles sequence that plants them all at awkward crossroads.
Forced to sell her London flat to pay off her husbandâs mountain of debt, recently widowed Evelyn (Dench) is reluctant to move in with their sonâs family. High Court Judge Graham (Wilkinson) is retiring after a long and respected career. Mild-mannered Douglas (Nighy) and his joyless snob of a wife, Jean (Penelope Wilton), have sunk their retirement funds into their daughterâs failed Internet startup. Madge (Celia Imrie) is too frisky to stay home playing granny, and randy old Norman (Ronald Pickup) can no longer continue lying about his age on dating sites. Muriel (Smith) is a long-serving housekeeper put out to pasture by her employers and now in urgent need of a hip replacement, which is prohibitively expensive or requires a long wait in England.
Responding to an advertisement for a âluxury development for residents in their golden years,â they fly to India. Strangers on arrival, they all seek some ineffable transformation, whether itâs independence, companionship, adventure, reconciliation with the past or simple dignity.
They receive an effusive welcome from Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), a well-intentioned but disorganized young entrepreneur who inherited the once-grand hotel from his father. But it soon becomes clear that improvements on the dilapidated property have stalled. In addition to a retreating investor, Sonny faces obstacles from his overbearing mother (Lillette Dubey). She aims to force him into a more secure business and an arranged marriage, frowning on his far-too-modern girlfriend (Tena Desae).
While Parkerâs screenplay is schematic, it elegantly traces the ways in which the Marigold guests adapt to their chaotic new surroundings. For some, like Evelyn and Douglas, the freeing effects are almost instantaneous, establishing them as kindred spirits and seeding a gentle flirtation. For Muriel, an unapologetic racist who just wants a new hip and a fast ticket home, the humanization happens despite her worst instincts when she inadvertently shows kindness to a lower-caste hotel housekeeper. Jean, by contrast, becomes more entrenched in her resistance to anything new and unknown.
The most affecting thread follows Graham, the sole member of the group with a previous connection to India, having spent his privileged childhood there. A gay man âmore in theory than in practice nowadays,â he has lived with regret and self-recrimination since returning to England to go to college. He left behind the love of his youth to face what he assumes was a life of shame. Observed with sensitivity and played with a deep well of sorrow by Wilkinson, this story breathes real tenderness into the movieâs reflections on growing older and making peace with past mistakes.