The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel isn’t perfect. It’s predictable, unrealistic, and possibly politically incorrect. It’s also charming, gorgeous, and thoroughly entertaining. Masterful director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) has turned Deborah Moggach’s novel The Foolish Things into the feel-good movie of the year. You’ll laugh and cry and laugh again. You’ll want to head for the nearest Indian restaurant, then drape a flower garland around your neck and dance with glee.
Seven elderly people, unable to grow old gracefully at home, leave England for the promise of a new life in a retirement hotel in Jaipur, India. The sudden death of her husband has forced Evelyn (Judi Dench) to sell her London flat. Unhappily married couple Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton) are broke after investing in their daughter’s internet startup. Lonely Norman (Ronald Pickup) is tired of being rejected in the dating game. Still-frisky grandma Madge (Celia Imrie) fantasizes about catching another husband. Former household servant Muriel (Maggie Smith) needs affordable hip replacement surgery. Wealthy attorney Graham (Tom Wilkerson) wants to find his boyhood love.
The travelers quickly learn that the former “jewel of the Empire” is nothing like the stiff upper lip, emotionally reserved culture of England. India is riotously full of life, a cacophony of noise and color, swarming crowds everywhere, motorcycles whizzing, cars honking, goats and chickens on the buses, elephants and camels on the roadways. After an arduous journey, they arrive at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful and their culture shock goes ballistic. The hotel is not the pretty paradise they were led to believe on the photo-shopped website—it’s a rambling, run-down mess.
Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) is the super-optimistic young hotel owner whose visions of its future glory blind him to present day realities. The guests are too polite to call him a liar. Or a lunatic, like his bossy mother does. Sonny wants to “outsource old age,” to provide a new life for old people whose countries don’t want them. “Prepare to be amazed!” Sonny enthuses.
And the Brits are amazed — at the dust, and the phones that don’t work, and the rooms full of cockroaches and flocks of birds. Sonny’s gourmet Indian meals sends them all to the bathroom, except for Muriel who refuses to eat anything she can’t pronounce.
But the magic of India proves irresistible. And soon the guests, one way or another, fall under its spell. Warmed by the country’s hot sun and the smiling faces of its people, they discover parts of themselves they’d never imagined in fog-sotted England. Only miserable Jean is too rigid to adapt and she remains unable to understand why the country is making her husband so happy.
Some critics have complained that Marigold Hotel perpetuates the myth of white race superiority. For example, shy Evelyn gets a job advising workers in a call center on how to talk on the phone to the elderly and helps increase their sales. Muriel devises a plan to use her nanny skills to save the hotel from financial disaster. In the context of the story, neither character intends to be superior, but rather is inspired to be resourceful. Their transformation is really more in fairy tale mode than anything blatantly racist.
As the guests rally around Graham on his mission to find his childhood love, they become friends, something that would never have happened in class-ridden England. Desires are revealed, secrets faced, anger erupts and so does love. You know what’s going to happen with each character — it’s watching how they get there that’s so enjoyable.
That’s not to say it’s all hunky dory. Getting old is not for sissies. And Marigold Hotel is about Life—which means there are always going to be challenges. “Everything will be all right in the end,” Sonny exclaims to his guests when they whine about the hotel’s imperfections. “If it’s not all right, then it’s not the end.”