If the second season of PBS’ Masterpiece “Downton Abbey” flew by too fast and only left you jonesing for more superb ensemble acting by Brits of a certain age, you should quickly make a reservation to visit “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”
Based on Deborah Moggach’s novel “These Foolish Things,” Marigold may lack the complexity and character development we’ve come to admire on Masterpiece Theater, but it makes up for its deficiencies with smart writing by Ol Parker and even smarter delivery by its remarkable cast. One can only envy director John Madden (“Shakespeare In Love,” “Proof,” “The Debt”) the opportunity to work with the likes of Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy, Celia Imre and Ronald Pickup—not to mention the fairly irrepressible “Slumdog Millionaire” star Dev Patel.
And since “Marigold” must wrap up a half-dozen life stories in just (two-minutes-) over two hours—as opposed to the seven or eight hours of a “Masterpiece” series, I for one, can forgive its reliance on coincidence and simplistic resolutions to create delightful entertainment.
As the movie begins, we’re introduced to the major players in their London environs. Each is facing the either forced or willing prospect of retirement that will lead them to consider a brochure promoting Jaipur’s newly renovated Best Exotic Marigold Hotel as a luxurious—yet affordable—destination for the beautiful and elderly. (“It’s like the Costa Brava,” one character anticipates, “but with more elephants.”)
The grandiose descriptions—and ambition—are the work of Sonny Kapoor (Patel), who has inherited the once elegant building from his father with the intention of restoring it to its former eminence. The brochure fails to mention that plumbing, wiring and phone service are works in progress. Sonny, however, is a firm believer—and frequent repeater—of the Indian saying: “Everything will be all right in the end…so if it is not all right, then it is not yet the end.”
But the hotel’s deficiencies are still to be discovered by the band of hardy British pilgrims who come together when stranded on the last leg of their journey: The recently widowed Evelyn Greenslade (Dench), who discovers she’s been left financially strapped; the High Court Judge Graham Dashwood (Wilkinson), a man with both personal secrets and a secret agenda to revisit the country where he grew up; the bickering Ainslees—Douglas (Nighy) and Jean (Wilton)—retired civil servants who invested their pensions in their daughter’s failed startup; the xenophobic Muriel Donnelly (Smith), retired from domestic service but enticed to India only temporarily to undergo a speedy hip replacement; and two unrelated singles—Norman Cousins (Pickup) and Madge Hardcastle (Imre)— determined to make successful late-life matches in the well-to-do ex-pat community.
How—with one exception—they cope with their situation, flourish under the broiling sun, learn to navigate streets teeming with humanity and adapt to a foreign culture— fill the story with pathos and humor so dry that in the screening I saw, some laughs arrived as late as 30-seconds after the lines! By the way, if you love Maggie Smith as the dour dowager Duchess on “Downton Abbey,” you will not be disappointed in her role here.
Cinematographer Ben Davis and Thomas Newman who scored the film seamlessly integrate the sights and sounds of the movie’s locations in Jaipur and Rajasthan into its sometimes spindly plot. Yes, it’s quite a coincidence that Evelyn finds much-needed employment in the call center where Sonny’s girlfriend (Tena Desae) works, that Muriel will find fulfillment and respect where she least expects to; that a retired judge will right the wrongs of his past and that true love will triumph not once, not twice, but at least three-times over before the final credits.
But to paraphrase that Indian saying: “Everything will be all right in the end. So if it was not all right, it wouldn’t be the end!”
This film opens in wide release Friday, May 4.