“Everything will be alright in the end. If it is not alright, it is not yet the end”
The British film industry has a reputation for turning out films with a strong story line and that are well acted and beautifully shot. We don’t tend to go in for angst and overwrought drama set around massive exploding set pieces, preferring to lend out directors to the Yanks for that sort of thing. If this statement is true, then this is the zenith of British film making. Of course this does not necessarily make for an interesting, absorbing or critically acclaimed movie and here lies the problem. Although the scenery is beautiful, the actors all well respected and the story original, the delivery of the film is not as strong as its parts, failing to impress or convince on many aspects.
The story line is quite simple. A bunch of retirees decide to spend their dotage in somewhere warmer and cheaper than jolly old Blighty. Looking out the window at the moment who could blame them? It’s not quite clear how, but they all discover the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (For the elderly and beautiful)” and decide to up sticks and relocate in the same way that many of the UK’s coffin dodgers fill up some of the Spanish resorts from October to May. For some the reasons are simple, for others a little more complex. Of course, being India, things are never quite as straight forward or as finished as perhaps they have been led to believe. Of course this is not the first hotel to Photoshop a few brochure images to entice the unwary and you would think anyone heading to the Sub Continent would do a little research as to what to expect.
The cast includes many of our favourite oldies, plus a few who might be a little uncomfortable with the thought that they qualify for a spot in God’s waiting room. Dame Judi Dench plays recently widowed and all but bankrupt Evelyn – homeless in the UK due to the hidden debt legacy from her late husband and forced to carry on working, even at Indian cost of living rates. She plays the character with a tinge of sadness and a hint of indomitable spirit, emerging from the shadow of her husband and over bearing sons. This contrasts to Maggie Smith’s portrayal of institutional racist Muriel, sent to India by her cash strapped NHS trust for a cheap hip replacement. This is not her strongest role, the humour and little asides we associate with Dame Maggie being mainly absent. Predictably we know that her character is going to become less racist and so her story line is somewhat overshadowed by the stronger aspects of the movie until quite close to the end.
Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton play the tired, sniping married couple, banished into poverty through a bad investment. He simply gets on with life and makes the best of it, while she longs for plain food, decent sanitation and the social standing that “A lifetime in the Civil Service” should befit. The reasons for High Court Judge Graham Dashwood's (Tom Wilkinson) journey are somewhat different to the rest of the gang and make a refreshing diversion. He at least understands India and has realistic expectations. Gold digger Madge (Celia Imrie) and ageing lothario Norman (Ronald Pickup) complete the British contingent with a number of well-respected although not well known outside of their country Indian actors completing the ensemble. Dev Patel as Sonny Kapoor, the owner, manager, CEO and just about everything else of the hotel without doubt gets some of the best lines and is really the only Anglicised Indian cast member. Somewhat hapless and inept, he is rather stereotypically Indian and is the least convincing for that very reason.
The plot is a little lazy. Everything that westerners associate with India is here, from the tuk-tuks and crowded, noisy streets to Delhi Belly and the inherent friendliness of the natives. We even get a call centre and Morris Oxford thrown in! Unfortunately this gives us a very one dimensional view of India and misses out on some of its beauty, serenity and move towards westernised values.
Technically the film is not great either. The soundtrack is lacklustre with very little effort made on the surround aspects and the music track predictable and uninteresting. Picture wise, the initial filming appears to be poor with lots of scenes “Fixed in the edit”. A few years ago we got away with this sort of thing on what is primarily a made for TV movie, but this film had global cinema release and our modern Hi-Def TVs have led to a growing discerning audience. I do not expect to see Jpeg jaggies around objects, poor contrast levels and way too much colouring and grading on major release like this.
Unfortunately the stereotypes continue to arrive thick and fast. The affluent call centre manager who does not think his sister should be going out with the hotel owner, the mother arranging her son’s marriage against his will, the Dalit (Low caste) girl who is befriended by the racist, it’s all just too predictable. The only thing missing is a big Bollywood dance number and this is a shame, as it would have pepped the film up nicely. I personally would have included it as a dream sequence for one of the main characters, but maybe I should keep my fantasy of seeing Dame Judi popping a few Bangra moves to myself...
As the film trundles on we start to get closure to the various story lines, most of which the astute will have already worked out for themselves. This does make the film very easy viewing, as you are hardly likely to miss a vital plot point when you get up to let the dog out. There are a few questions like which one is going to die first – even the narrative within the film suggests that when you put a bunch of old people together the most likely outcome is death! The funeral at least gives us a chance to see a little more of India including a location that you might recognise from the Bond film Octopussy.
This is all getting to sound a bit negative and the film really isn’t that bad, so what’s good? There is no getting away from the authentic Indian scenes. The hotel is simply wonderful - a cross between a Doge’s palace and crumbling ruin, it is totally believable. The general setting for Jaipur is equally convincing with dusty potholed roads, mud buildings interspersed with more modern buildings, all held together with India’s famous creaking infrastructure. The pace of the film is very sedate, but still quite controlled. This allows the cast to explore and develop their characters and the juxtaposition between the frenetic Indian hotel Manager and the refined gentry that some of the characters at least aspire to works very well. With this sort of quality cast the dialogue is snappy and the acting pretty much flawless. By this I mean the communication to the viewer of the key aspects of the story is generally excellent. The lack of bad language is also refreshing and we also escape without any geriatric sex scenes – trust me a real relief!
Predictable though the outcome of the story might be, it is still well played and brings the movie to a feel good conclusion. We get the feeling that the remaining pensioners have been granted an extension to life and that all is good in the world.
If you like feel good movies with interesting settings and a story line unlikely to confuse or offend then this film may well work for you. Personally I did not dislike this film, but could not look past some of the technical issues or predictable storyline. Maybe I am just not quite close enough to retirement yet!
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