The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Directed by John Madden
Starring Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith
Released in the UK on 24 February
The characters are deftly sketched within the first five minutes. A lonely man (Tom Wilkinson) and a newly single woman (Judi Dench) are joined by an aspirational snob (Penelope Wilton) and her long-suffering husband (Bill Nighy), a curmudgeonly racist (Maggie Smith), a seductive woman (Celia Imrie) and a randy man (Ronald Pickup). So far, so familiar for an ensemble romantic comedy. What makes the set-up remarkable is that the principal characters are of retirement age, as are most of the actors: Imrie, at 59, is the youngest, but Smith and Dench are both 77.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where this diverse group comes together, is a run-down, ramshackle Indian palace, well past its prime; the doors have fallen off, the taps drip and the bedrooms are full of roosting birds. But The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the film, is perfectly crafted. Its interlocking character trajectories and plot strands click effortlessly together like expertly carved, lovingly polished pieces, building into a nearly faultless final structure. The echoing motifs and thematic resonances are neat but never glib, and the details are sharply honed: every other line of dialogue is a zinger. Above all, we are treated to performances from seven actors at the absolute top of their game.
As The Remains of the Day amply demonstrated, characters trapped by stuffy social structure and fenced in by formality may not provide the immediate thrills and spectacle we are accustomed to in modern culture, but their love and pain can become more powerful by being pent-up; deeply harboured, held-back passions build and churn like water behind a dam. Repressed tension between two very proper people can crackle in just a word or a glance, and when it's released, it thunders.
Evelyn, Douglas, Graham, Norman, Jean, Madge and Muriel may have earned their bus passes back in Britain, but in India, we discover that they have longings, desires and regrets all the more moving for being buried deep, and energies - libido, as well as romantic love - still bubbling to get out. You need a cast of over-60s, tightly bound by convention, to make a murmured "forgive me" feel desperately sincere. It may be no accident that Wilkinson's character - they greet each other by surname - is called Mr Dashwood; both the quiet but intense social drama and the subtle barbs are reminiscent of Austen.
You need a cast of over-60s for this kind of buttoned-up Englishness; either that, or you have to go back in time or, ironically, overseas. India's hierarchies and boundaries are used to parallel and underline the distinctions between the hotel guests. The portrayal of India itself is the film's most disappointing aspect, offering little we haven't seen before. Wilkinson praises "the light, the colours, the smiles" and Dench describes "the perpetual teeming crowds, the exotic dishes" in the language of tourist brochures, while the Indian characters approach stereotype too often: hotel manager Sonny (Dev Patel) assures the visitors their rooms will be "one hundred per cent shipshape, most definitely". While Sonny and his family are engaging enough, this film belongs to the older players; the "long in tooth", as Sonny calls them. Tucked among the one-liners ("When I want your opinion, I'll give it to you") are frank admissions of loneliness and need, and articulate explorations of identity. "Have we travelled far enough", wonders Dench, "that we can allow our tears to fall?"
Gently but steadily, these men and women overturn and undermine the stereotypes associated with their age, as the quick character sketches of the opening scenes are worked up into subtle, complex portraits. One guest slips literally into shadow at the moment of death, but others come to life. The folds and wrinkles of a naked body are revealed as joyous and exuberant, while the fine lines around Dench's eyes, her dignified bearing and the open, girlish honesty in her face become beautiful. John Madden's film is genuinely romantic and riotously funny; it is not just wiser and truer, but, astonishingly, fresher and sexier than films with a far younger cast.