From the moment that we’re shown a clip of each character’s situation in England that has them ripe to retire not at Southend-On-Sea or Swansea, but in India, we know that their adventure in this comedy-drama will turn out to be a formulaic one.
Each of them responds to a brochure advertising The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful, and, of course, when they get there the hotel looks nothing like the brochure. What’s more, this group—visually framed for us, conveniently, on the same row of seats at the airport waiting to board—will be the hotel’s only customers.
“I want to stay in the other hotel—the one that’s in the brochure.”
“This is the same one.”
“You Photoshopped it.”
Such formulaic artifice sets the tone for what follows: a predictable narrative about people finding a brief cure for “what ails them” that’s bolstered by colorful location filming and occasionally smart writing.
But back to the retirees, who have been chosen, of course, because they represent “types” of people we’re apt to find in such situations:
Evelyn (Judi Dench) lost her husband a year ago and after a life of not doing much of anything for herself, against her daughter’s advice she decides she needs an adventure for once in her life. She has no choice, actually, as she’s forced to sell her house to pay off her late husband’s debts.
Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is a retired judge whose agenda is played pretty close to the vest. But it’s clear that he wanted to return to where he spent time as a youngster, and that’s more than evident in the pick-up cricket matches he plays with the local children.
Muriel (Maggie Smith) needs a hip replacement and as a former domestic her retirement savings won’t provide for the kind of care she needs. So she heeds the advice of a British doctor who tells her to go to India for affordable surgery and rehabilitation. She’s racist, so India poses a special challenge (“If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t want to eat it”).
Normal (Ronald Pickup) is the clichéd dirty old man who’s really just lonely and doesn’t know what else to do with his oversexed personality. After trying to pass himself off as a younger man with a dating agency in London, he goes to India hoping for greener pastures. He’s the sort of fellow who, when a woman meets him and says, politely, “My pleasure,” responds with “Play your cards right and it could be.”
Madge (Celia Imrie) is looking for a new husband, and Jean (Penelope Wilton) and Doug (Bill Nighy) are a married couple forced to consider retirement in India because he invested most of their savings in their daughter’s failed Internet business. “Thirty years in the civil service and this is all we can afford?” Jean complains, when they’re shown a flat in London that has handrails on the walls for the handicapped and elderly. Here, she’s just as caustic. “I spent a happy couple of hours giving the cockroaches names,” she reports to her husband, who wishes she’d leave the compound with him and brave the city, experience its delights.
Like the old people in “Cocoon,” this group finds that adventure is one way to keep both aging and dying at bay—at least temporarily. And whatever problems they have individually seem to be helped—or at least resolved—by a situation each encounters in Jaipur.
The owner of the run-down hotel is Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), who wants to marry his girlfriend, Sunaina (Tena Desae), as soon as he can surprise his doubting mother and rise to the level of his brother by making the hotel a success. He’s the most over-the-top character, in the mold of Disney channel Indians and adults. At one point, when someone is in need of assistance Sonny shouts, “Let me through, please . . . my brother is a doctor.”
Along with some exceptional cinematography that captures the all-senses onslaught India provides, such occasional funny lines are enough to keep you interested in a film that otherwise seems plodding, despite knowing exactly where it’s going. “At my age I can’t plan that far ahead,” Muriel complains. “I don’t even buy green bananas.”
Given what ails each of them, you know what fate awaits. Hollywood is built upon such reversals, and director John Madden turns to such tried-and-true methods in this indie film. Credit a veteran cast, whose own personalities trail behind them like welcome baggage, for making us want to watch each scenario play itself out.
For travel films you hope for a picture-perfect narration, and we come close with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc. There’s a nice layer of filmic grain that’s compatible with the mix of bright and shabby colors that dominate the travelers’ experience. Black levels are strong, and there’s a nice sense of 3-dimensionality in many of the sequences. If there were any compression problems, they escaped me.
Rear speakers come alive during street scenes, but otherwise the ambience is relegated to the wide swath of sound that spans the front and center speakers. Don’t look for much subwoofer action either, beyond an occasional deep-throated vehicle. But dialogue is clear and those street scenes capture just enough sound to sell the experience. The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround, with additional audio options in English Descriptive 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, and French Dolby Digital 5.1.
The “don’t blink” bonus features consist of just five featurettes, none of which run over four minutes. “Casting Legends” is a round-up of the main talents and how they got involved, “Trekking to India: Life Is Never the Same” covers location filming, “Tuk Tuk Travels” features the three-wheeled taxis that are common to so many Third World countries, “Welcome to the Real Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a brief but fascinating glimpse of the former palace that was used in filming, and “Behind the Story: Lights, Colors, and Smiles” features director Madden in what amounts to a pre-release promo. Throw in another “Sneak Peek” promo and it still won’t be enough to satisfy the really curious.
If you like films about travel, if you like watching film legends work together, you might want to check into “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Consummate professionals and some sharp writing and interesting cinematography make it worth the trip.