Director: John Madden
Cast: Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Penelope Wilton, Tina Desai and Maggie Smith
Plot: A group of British pensioners move to an Indian hotel in search of a change of scenery and encounter even more problems than before.
Sometimes it is in the smaller stories that you can find the most charm. In many ways, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a movie about very little. A group of seven older Brits all decide to up sticks and move to India. Hi-jinks ensue. No one is given a larger than life character. There is no chance for Wilkinson to put on the New York Falcone mobster drawl or Bill Nighy to go all Davy Jones on the audience. However in revelling in the minimalist narrative and low key performances, Madden finds a softer sort of thrill, a pleasant British comedy that appeals to the Sunday afternoon crowd.
The biggest problem on paper is the hefty ensemble of veteran actors. Dame Judi Dench plays the newly-widow, who realises, in the wake of her husband’s death, she has never done anything by herself. Her quest to India is one of self-discovery. Tom Wilkinson is the mysterious barrister who quits his job impulsively and flees to India to dredge up a secretive past. Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton are the retired holiday-goers who clearly want different things from the holiday. Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup play two singletons, who come to India looking for romantic partners, in Imrie’s case, preferably a rich one. And finally Maggie Smith plays the hilariously racist bigot who is forced to the Exotic Marigold Hotel in India for a specialist hip operation. Yes, there is a lot of story to get through and perhaps it is the thing that stops Exotic Marigold Hotel becoming a stand-out piece of cinema. Pickup and Imrie, in particular, suffer from being side-lined, their addition damaged by the fact their narratives are based around finding love for selfish reasons. They are the least interesting of the lot and only two humorous performances keep you fixed on their stories. However, while there is a clear pecking order in the cast list, it is true that every actors gets a moment to shine. No one can criticise their part in the overall story. Judi Dench anchors the story with a quietly, sorrowful performance that brings in the emotion. Tom Wilkinson gets the meatiest story. Bill Nighy is wonderfully Bill Nighy. There is also praise to be given for the fact that Dev Patel, the young Indian entrepreneur who runs the crumbling hotel against his mother’s wishes, has his own arc to fulfil. He could easily have been forgotten compared next to stronger, more established actors, but the young star shines here. His painfully exuberant enthusiasm, even in the darkest of times, is infectious and pretty much summarises the tone the film is going for. The best reason to sit down and watch this film is to see these actors take some quality material and work miracles with it.
It is also strong, if a little gentle comedy. The jokes are quietly precise. Judi Dench on the phone to a robotic call centre. Bill Nighy’s expression as something peculiar happens. In fact, the only time the humour dares go over the top is when it comes to Maggie Smith’s character, who is bound to cause a few blushes in the audience with some of her dialogue. No, there isn’t really a moment that will cause your sides to split, but there is also joy to be had in how everything on offer here feels natural. There is never any moment where character is sacrificed for an amusing set-piece. Anything done in the film is an extension of what the character would actually do, which helps negate the usual pitfalls of more abrupt comedy features. The emotion is strong too, a healthy dose of the two. There are several moments that cause you to stop and let the power of the scene sink in. When a strong dramatic moment jumps out in between all the comedy, it works like a finely-tuned instrument, causing the kind of thrill you are looking for in this sort of movie. Everything just works well, hitting every beat you want it to. If I had to fault it, I would have to admit the ending is wrapped up annoyingly easy, like a mad rush to get to a happy ending. Sure, you leave the film with a smile on your face, which is half the fun, but tiny segments of the writing could be described as sloppy. However, a few flat notes do not spoil a most British, pleasant offering from director John Madden.
Final Verdict: A cracking British ensemble piece that, while not laugh out loud, serves as a strong comedy.