Eat, Pray, Old People

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
(UK, 124 min.)
Dir. John Madden, Writ. Ol Parker
Starring: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Dev Patel, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Tena Desae.
Ah, this is what Eat,Pray, Love should have been: a rollicking and refreshing travelogue of self-discovery. Although I certainly enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love (the movie, not the book), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is more appreciable in its embodiment of everything that Eat, Pray, Love is not. EPL certainly had some pretty scenery and a cleansing story told via a hop, a skip, and a jump to Italy, India, and Bali, respectively, but it was ultimately about a self-absorbed white woman who basked in the privilege of shirking her responsibilities and finding enlightenment atop an ivory tower. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel also tells of cross-cultural catharsis, but unlike Eat, Pray, Love, this tale of white folks in India is unassuming and illuminating.

Beginning with Evelyn, played by Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel introduces a group of geriatrics who, like Julia Roberts’s fortysomething Liz Gilbert, all find themselves in a time of profound and/or terrifying change. Evelyn is recently widowed, as she informs the indifferent call-centre assistant who refuses to aid her. Alone after forty years of marriage, Evelyn is in a real crisis: not only is her husband gone, but he left her with exorbitant debts. Equally at loss are Douglas and Jean, a married couple played by Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton. Both are recently retired, but they made some bad investments and lost their life savings. Douglas and Jean at least have each other, although their odd-couple dynamic seems a bad omen for two people who now have so much free time on their hands.
The other retirees who form the travel party, however, are, like Evelyn, alone. Muriel (Maggie Smith), an old-school racist, needs a hip operation, but her doctor (a foreigner!) says that it will be at least six months until the operation. Muriel can’t wait that long, she says, for at her age she won’t even buy green bananas since she never knows if she’ll be here tomorrow. More optimistic for the future are Madge and Norman, a gold-digging cougar and a dirty-old-man played by Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup, respectively. Also looking for love is Graham, a recently retired judge played by Tom Wilkinson, who also happens to be the most headstrong and worldly senior.

All seven of the retirees all find themselves in a state of flux. They all realize that they’re quickly approaching their expiry dates. It’s their last chance to make something of themselves, or at least correct the wrongs of the past so that they can wind out their years in peace. By different acts of coincidence, compulsion, or fate, the group of seven all decide to ship off to India, enticed by the lovely adverts for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a posh oasis in Jaipur that offers astonishingly cheap rates and free airfare. It’s the perfect arrangement for people with little funds and lots of free time.

Never having strayed too far from their comfortable middle-to-upper class lifestyle, the trip to Jaipur proves a necessary wake-up call for some of the travellers. The noises, smells, and all-too-visible signs of poverty are overwhelming for some, especially Jean. The trip, however, grants the retirees some perspective on the path that brought them to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, right in the heart of India.
Like much of the lives that the travellers hoped they’d had, the hotel proves disappointing. It’s an empty, ramshackle-type place, loosely held together by an eccentric manage named Sonny. Sonny is played by Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame, channelling the ghost of Babu Bhatt from Seinfeld, and he offers a performance that’s almost treads into stereotype: Patel will surely draw some laughs, but he’s also bound to make one squirm at least once.
The elderly folks are handled with charm and grace, however, and offer some age-old wisdom. Judi Dench is particularly fine as Evelyn, who finds in Jaipur the purpose she lacked at home. Nighy and Wilton also convey different modes of adaptability, with Douglas happily accepting the spicy curries of India and making the transition like a calm, cool cat (as he should be, it’s Bill Nighy). Jean, however, is shrill and selfish – the film’s Liz Gilbert, if you will – and she refuses to leave the hotel until she has enough money to return home. Evelyn and Douglas quickly become good travel companions and embrace their new opportunities while Jean clings to the life she had. As Dench explains in voice-over as Evelyn shares notes of her journey on her new blog, the biggest failure in life is to simply never have tried at all.

The others learn from Jean’s closed mind and work to better their situation. The strongest journeys are evident in Graham and Muriel. Graham is the most sure in his search as he is the only one with an existential motivation to go to India, and his quest is ultimately the most therapeutic and purifying. Muriel, on the other hand, goes for purely medical reasons, yet the trip prescribes all sorts of other remedies to her prejudiced ways. Smith’s wry, acerbic delivery as the crotchety Muriel offers a hilarious and moving arc of before and after. Imrie and Pickup provide some fun, too, as the swinging singles of the group, and show that old people can still be the life of the party.

There is perhaps one character too many among the party, since ample screen time occasionally passes before returning to one plotline or before tying two of them together. Nevertheless, all the threads of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel show different facets of dealing with old age and of struggling to grasp one’s sense of purpose when time looks to be running out. Both droll and dramatic, the film provides a fun, warm, and refreshing tale of growing up after one has grown old.
As handled by director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Debt) and screenwriter Ol Parker (adapting the book by Deborah Moggach), The Exotic Marigold Hotel avoids the problematic and often patronizing life lessons of Liz Gilbert’s bildungsroman. It helps, too, that although The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a bit more Calendar Girls than A Room with a View, it avoids romanticizing the very land that yields such education. For example, when Douglas has his transformative solo expedition to an ancient temple, Madden withholds the setting from view. The film is more about the cultures offered by travel than the picturesque experiences. Whereas some travel films indulge in landscape porn and offer stunning shots of iconic images, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel privileges the people over the place. In one of Sonny’s better uses, for example, the film uses his relationship with Sunaina (Tena Desae), which he keeps hidden from his mother, to question the rigid adherence to tradition and a refusal for change. The film rejects a postcard-perfect lensing of India altogether, with little of the scenery engulfing the shot aside from some details of working class living: some scenes are set amongst the busy streets, an ancient pool that sits cached amongst the houses, and some modern buildings provide a backdrop to the setting, but so do alleyways, cluttered offices, and impoverished chawls. The vibrant lensing by Ben Davis only helps draw attention to the gaps between the travellers’ fantasy and life as it is.

Rating: (out of ★★★★★)

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel opens May 4th.