Don't be fooled by the clunky title or the geriatric cast of director John Madden's latest film, because not only is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a compassionate, life-affirming comedy-drama with more substance, wit, and spirit than ten teenage melodramas, it's also possessed of an ageless wisdom and sense of wonder that's genuinely moving, no matter what your age.
A small group of British pensioners learn that the life they want to live might not be the life they need to live after signing up for a unique retirement plan in India. Upon arriving at the once-opulent Marigold Hotel, however, the eager retirees come to realize that rumors of the building's restoration have been greatly exaggerated. Just when it seems that the privileged seniors have been swindled out of their life savings, they summon the courage to sever their ties to the past and embrace their new lives with a sense of wonder and adventure. For regretful Graham (Tom Wilkinson), that means seeking closure following a childhood trauma that altered the course of his life. Meanwhile, embittered Muriel (Maggie Smith) wrestles with her own intolerance after being thrust into a foreign culture; lonely Norman (Ronald Pickup) seeks a companion who can make him feel needed again; vulnerable Madge (Celia Imrie) searches for someone to care for her; and widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench) is still reeling from losing her beloved husband to a heart attack. Even Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton), married for decades, must face the sad fact that their marriage has been on life support for a long time. And just when it seems as if this ramshackle retirement home will buckle under the weight of mounting debt, determined owner Sonny (Dev Patel) makes a last-ditch effort to save the hotel and also profess his love for the woman he longs to marry.
In recent years, stories focusing on mature adults have seemingly been eclipsed at the box office by a rampant succession of sparkling vampires and sappy adolescent love stories. As a result, it's a much-welcome change of pace to see a film that not only focuses on the weighty issues we will all someday face, but also handles them with a sense of levity that invites the interest of younger viewers still in the prime of their lives. Adapted from Deborah Moggach's novel These Foolish Things by screenwriter Ol Parker, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel skillfully addresses the universal topic of aging in a way we can all identify with. Prominent themes of regret, fear, loneliness, and uncertainty hang heavy over the heads of the retirees as they attempt to adjust to their new lives in India and reflect on their decision to reject traditional retirement options in favor of a less-predictable alternative, but they never weigh down the narrative or feel oppressive as Parker smartly examines the consequences of becoming prisoners of our own perception. Madden, meanwhile, splashes the screen with swaths of vivid color, revealing the beauty of Indian culture without losing sight of his characters and their motivations. And with a truly stellar cast to bring those characters to life, the film rarely hits a false note. As the crestfallen soul at the center of the story, Wilkinson gives The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel genuine heart, while also keeping us involved in the film's central mystery. Nighy makes the most of his role as a man locked in a loveless marriage yet still determined to savor every day, Dench displays a soulful gaze as the widow wondering if she will ever love again, and Smith manages to be captivating even while playing a character who's hopelessly shackled by her own prejudice.
As the obsession with youth bleeds into every aspect of the arts, including cinema, there are precious few films that successfully manage to bridge the gap between generations. But with its gentle charm, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is -- honestly and thankfully -- just such an anomaly.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on AllMovie
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)