Last night, I finally watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Normally, when I see a trailer for a film, I am filled with scorn. Trailers are very predictable and usually turn even good films in a mush of cliches. But that wasn’t the case with this film. Probably it had something to do with the cast: I’m fond of them all, most especially Tom Wilkinson and Maggie Smith. So I went in with great hopes and thusly great concern that I would be disappointed. I was not.
The film tells the story of a small group of retired people from England who for various reasons come to a retirement hotel in Jaipur, India. Once there, they find that the hotel is not all that was promised—it is run down and dirty. The owner, Sonny, is a man with great dreams. He tells them his philosophy of life (also of the film), “Everything will be all right in the end; if it’s not all right then it’s not yet the end.” Most of the guests get used to hotel and slowly grow to the love the people and the place. Yes, it is an entirely typical scenario for a film. But that isn’t really bad because it is mostly interesting for the characters.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not a great film, but it is highly entertaining and I loved it. It is hard to say why the film works so well. It contains a lot of different plot strands and it cross cuts between them in what I would think (from a technical perspective) would not work. It seems too regimented without a central thread to hang everything on. What’s more, the third act is a bit of a muddle with many of the characters seemingly waiting around for a resolution. And yet it not only works, it is captivating.
Clearly, the film has a lot going for it on a technical level. It has a great cast with a director (John Madden) who is used to directing great actors. But I think the script itself is better than one might think with such a tired setup. The core of the film is the lives of the characters, and everyone of them is interesting. The biggest problem with films that cut from one story line to another is that the viewer is often disinterested in one or more of the stories. This just isn’t the case here. I found I was even deeply involved with the most dislikable character, Jean (played brilliantly by Penelope Wilton). That isn’t to say that everyone will see the film the same way I did. However, it is clear that all of the stories work.
There is one standout scene that I think describes the film. Muriel (Maggie Smith) is a casually racist woman who has come to India for hip replacement surgery. She becomes close to the hotel maid. They don’t talk, because the maid cannot speak English and Muriel sure the hell can’t speak Hindi or any of the other languages of India. But they still manage to communicate. She asks Muriel (through a translator) if she has children. Muriel goes on to tell her story as a domestic and how she always took care of other families. The translator soon gives up translating. Muriel gets more and more emotional as she explains the effect of losing her job, “Because they said I was no longer useful to them. They thanked me for my service as if that was all it was. I found a flat in the end. My problem was what to do with all the time I had. I mean the flat—it’s so small, I can have it spotless in half an hour. And then, you know, what am I supposed to do? For the rest of the day?” It wasn’t necessary for the maid to have those words translated.
Otherwise, the film is more than competently made. The art direction and costume design provide a very celebratory mood. There is lots of moving camera work and some very planned (and subtle) cuts. The music is a bit too emotionally forcing for my tastes, but then, it usually is. It looks shockingly good for its $10 million budget. Bottom line: it is a highly entertaining film made for grown-ups.