Dame Judi Dench appeared in two major hits in 2012. While watching both of them, I found myself wondering in amazement how I had managed never to hear of this woman until she was 61 years old. One of those films, Skyfall, I saw in a theater; the other, John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, was the feature this week at Movie Klub.
Dench is among a collection of elderly Britons introduced at the beginning of the film, each of them drawn for various reasons to the titular hotel, a run-down edifice managed by the inappropriately optimistic Sunny (Dev Patel). Each of them has his or her own backstory, and each experiences India in his or her own way, plus Sunny has a backstory pitting his old-fashioned mother against his overly modern girlfriend.
The main appeal of this film during its surprising art-house run is that it stars all the Brits. In addition to Densch we have Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, and Dame Maggie Smith making the trip to India. Plus, in the lesser two British roles we have Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup, whose film, television, and theater careers have lasted almost four and five decades, respectively. In short it would be near impossible to collect a better cast of British actors, plus in Patel you have the title character from the Best Picture-winning Slumdog Millionaire.
When one hears the pitch for this movie, it would be easy to dismiss it as another “white filmmakers congratulating themselves on their lack of racism” sort of film, like a British version of The Help. For example, Smith’s character is of a type that I call the Elderly Comedy Racist which is often seen in these sort of movies, who says offensive things mostly so that she can be mocked by other characters for laughs. However, the fact that India was once an English colony creates a different sort of dynamic: it’s as if whatever racial or cultural battles that these countries might have had were over long ago, and the English lost. If India is a character in this movie at all, it’s a a character which is smarter than all of the characters at both the beginning of the movie, and at the end.
One thing I liked best about this film is that it never takes the cheap way out by turning its characters into one-note ponies. The closest it comes is with Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley on Downton Abbey, Prime Minister Harriet Jones from the Doctor Who revival) as Nighy’s wife, who bullies him so mercilessly that she treads close to cartoon territory. Yet even she is a whole person, with fears and desires that she is given every chance to display. She might have the best moment of facial-expression acting in the entire movie, as Wilkinson crushes every hope and dream in her life with two simple words.
Maybe the only character in the film that I disliked was Smith’s. She is as terrific an actress as ever, of course, and her character is actually a better one than most Elderly Comedy Racists – she has motivations and a backstory which could plausibly explain why she acts the way she does. This is not just Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets or Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, and for that I was grateful. However, as with most ECRs, her actions seem to result from narrative convenience than any decision on her part.
It’s sort of expected that movies about elderly characters will speak about the nature of life, usually delivered via death. I don’t want to spoil anything, but that aspect is definitely present in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. However, there’s a lot more than that going on here. Ol Parker’s screenplay has some interesting things to say about loyalty, as both Nighy’s and Smith’s story lines imply that it’s possible to be too devoted to other people, a concept that almost never turns up in modern American dramas. The film uses a homosexual relationship to sell its most important messages about love, which is another thing that you don’t see in American films not named Brokeback Mountain. The presence of these non-standard aspects alongside other storylines that have more typical messages about life, love, and death, gives the sense that this film is bursting at the seams with emotion.
And yet, as crowded as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is, I kept coming back to Dench’s character. Every member of this award-laden cast has a chance for a powerful dramatic moment, but she had multiple chances to move me, and succeeded every time. In fact my favorite moment in the movie was not any one monologue, but Dench’s crushing moment of self-doubt in which she wonders aloud if she had been a failure as a wife because her late husband kept secrets from her. Self-doubt is such a difficult thing to do right in movies today, because so few films have time for it; they have to rush to the redemption while still keeping space open for the comedy and action and product placement. And in truth, Madden doesn’t devote too much time to Dench’s self-doubt either, but because she is likely the greatest living British actress, she knows how to make the most of the time she has. I would have paid the price of admission just to see Judi Dench’s Indian Adventure; the rest of this delightful film is just icing on the cake.
Reviewed by Mark Young