The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: Where Seniors Find Adventure

Maggie Smith and Judi Dench shine in a British film fueled by veteran star power

Too bad there’s not an Oscars, Senior Division, because The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel would make a clean sweep next year.
Then again, it’s not as if there would be much competition, since Hollywood barely acknowledges that anyone past the age of 55 exists on screen other than as a barely seen parent or foul-mouthed comic relief. Forget seeing such characters having sex lives, dealing with financial stress and being eager for new experiences.
Marigold Hotel is a British film opening in theaters this weekend. It is filled to the brim with a cast of glittering English acting stalwarts the likes of which hasn’t been seen since last year’s final episode of the Harry Potter movie series.
For starters, there’s a couple of Oscar-winning Dames, namely Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. Also adding star power are Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton (Dame Maggie’s favorite target for insults on Downton Abbey), Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie. You may not know all the names, but if you've spent time watching British TV series on PBS’s Masterpiece or on BBC America, you know — and love — these faces. (Added bonus: Julie Christie, who won an Oscar way back when for 1965’s Darling, makes a quickie appearance near the end.)
The plot is simple. A group of English seniors, whether looking for adventure or to save money, all head to Jaipur in India for a low-cost retirement in a run-down hotel-turned-senior home. The proprietor is a hopeful young Indian entrepreneur (Dev Patel, of Slumdog Millionaire) who is betting he can save the family business by catering to British codgers.
His first crop of clients is a diverse group. Dench plays a woman who relied on her late husband to make all the decisions and now finds herself with a pile of debts and no work experience. Smith is an ill-tempered bigot in a wheel chair who has come primarily to take advantage of India’s cheaper medical rates. Wilkinson is a retired lawyer who lived and loved in Jaipur years ago and is retracing memories. Nighy and Wilkinson are a bickering couple whose daughter bled them dry in her effort to launch a new business. And so on.
Much of what happens by the end is predictable, but the journey to get there is both scenic and pleasant. These actors all know what they are doing and do it with panache, and director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) keeps the multiple storylines distinct yet interwoven.
It is glorious fun just to watch these folks at work. Walking that fine line she so often does these days between mugging and brilliancy, Smith gets her crotchet on, leveling all who come before her with her withering one-liners. What elevates the performance, though, is that Smith also makes abundantly clear the loneliness and fear that lie behind her character’s nastiness.
There are equally fine turns by Dench (whose character gains strength and self-confidence upon getting a job at a call center) and the others. Like a jazz band in which each player is given a chance at a solo, in Marigold Hotel each actor is allowed a scene or two in which to shine.
In addition to the rewards offered by its acting and story, what Marigold Hotel does in spades is to remind one how much Hollywood is missing by its relentless concentration on youth and superheroes.
There’s a whole world of characters (and stories) out there worth exploring, even if many have a few wrinkles on them and look a little lumpy in spandex. Actually, come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind seeing Jane Fonda or Clint Eastwood in spandex.

Leah Rozen
By Leah Rozen
Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, More and Parade.

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