Perhaps it’s easier to be a cynical, snarky film critic, deriding at every opportunity the work of others, slamming down every film that capitalise on clichés, banality and damning lack of originality, than to actually make a film for others to enjoy. This line of thought was swimming in my head after emerging from the sun-dappled, Pantone colour-tinted The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – a little film that could have been another trivial Brits-on-a-holiday movie but turns out to be a little more. In concept, it’s a movie that will make eyes roll – a group of septuagenarians embark on a last hurrah to India, encountering along the way culture clash, overt racism, sexual awakening, the kama sutra, lots of unpronounceable variations of curry, personal redemption, inner peace, la di da, blah blah, heave and vomit. The truth of the matter gets even worse when you stare at film’s poster, deliberately designed to appeal to the mindless, artless rom-com crowds who dine with colourful, contrived happy endings and sappy, saccharine shit like Eat, Pray, Love. Marigold Hotel, at a distance, seems to be like an OAP Inbetweeners movie, but with less swearing, little booze, and more grandparent sex, more musing about retirement, death and mortality. Sounds like virtually no fun for a holiday movie. But goddammit, I enjoyed every minute of this movie.
Which sends us back to my theory on film criticism – High Art vs. Entertainment. What is the point in criticising a movie that is so blatantly, incontrovertibly quotidian and yet still managed to transport you into its own world and be entertained all throughout? It’s a hypocritical stance – but without abandoning whatever credibility or dignity left in me, I’d champion The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel as a movie to be seen and enjoyed. It’s a familiar frolic, but a delightful one – loaded with characters, each with their own emotional baggage, issues and sorrows, who are all sincerely human. The standout is Dame Judi Dench (what a surprise, my dear), who carries the entire narrative fulcrum on her well-experienced shoulders, a widower who seeks self-discovery in Jaipur. Her dignified, compassionate approach to life is quietly moving, even transforming a rudimentary phone call into a poignant performance marvel. Others may be bordering on stereotypes, but the likes of British veteran thesps (whose casting names sounds like a calling card to Downton Abbey) Maggie Smith, brilliant and funny as a huffy-puffy working-class bigot, Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton as typical bickering couple, Tom Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup as randy retirees looking for some good old hedonism, and then there’s Tom Wilkinson, who shines as the High Court judge saddled with a lifelong regret. If there’s a caveat – it’s Dev Patel (who looks like he just strolled in from the set of Slumdog Millionaire, what did we expect?) and his romantic caper with local beauty Sunaina (Tena Desae), laden with groan-inducing paltriness. Thanks, then, to this ensemble of veteran cast, all whom in their twilight years still show wonderful sparks, transforming this little holiday movie for retirees into a thoughtful, if colourful, wittily observed comic piece about the truths of growing old, life’s sorrows and the human need to be happy and die quite happily.
This won’t change your perspective in life or swerve your stance in mainstream cinema, but give The Best Marigold Hotel a little chance and bask in its miniature delights and a bit of wonderful altruism. Plus there’s a reliable Altmanesque ensemble of British thesps that would send a casting director into a multiple orgasm.