The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the story of seven British pensioners taking a chance on a new resort in India for seniors to retire in. These include a recent widow (Judi Dench), a man pursuing the love he never dared to as a teenager (Tom Wilkinson), and a retired housekeeper who doesn't trust her Indian doctors to perform a hip replacement surgery on her (Maggie Smith). The hotel is run by Sonny (Dev Patel), a young man trying to set up a strong future for himself so he can gain the approval of his mother (Lilette Dubey) to marry his girlfriend (Tena Desae).
On a comparatively low budget, John Madden pulls out all the stops to make the sweet story of pensioners trying to reclaim their place in the world into a masterful large ensemble comedy. The film has this strong sense of cohesion even though the individual stories are connected by setting and circumstance alone. The pensioners rarely interact with each other in a large group once they arrive at the hotel. Yet, all the different threads come together nicely to create a lovely portrait of new beginnings and the pursuit of happiness.
Judi Dench is the central figure of the film and she makes the most of it. Her character, Evelyn, is in such dire straights that she actually has to find a job when she moves to India. She teachers herself to use a computer so she can blog about her experience in India. She becomes the voice of the shared experience of the pensioners through voice over narration. Dench effortlessly sinks into a role that could be quite morose in a less skilled actor's hands.
Tom Wilkinson has a showier role that is used to really explore the setting of the story. As Graham, the retired judge seeking out his former love, he experiences the beauty and poverty of the setting in equal measure. His lover's home was leveled years ago, but now it's a wide open street for children to play in. The information office is cluttered and blocked with red tape, but the employees do everything they can to help him. Wilkinson probably has the most shared screen time with the core ensemble as he politely turns down the romantic advances of his fellow travelers.
Maggie Smith has the broadest, flashiest role as a racist pensioner. There's really no other way to describe the character. She refuses an office visit to discuss her hip in her first scene because the doctor assigned to her case isn't white. She refuses surgery in India because her doctor isn't white. She refuses food at the hotel because it's not proper British food. Even when people bend over backwards to help her, she pushes them away if they aren't the right kind of people. Since it's a comedy, you know from the start that she will turn over a new leaf. It's just a miserable slog until then.
The reason the part draws your eye so much is because Maggie Smith makes a caricature actually come alive as a real human being--with emotions, thoughts, and a real sense of humanity. Her interpretation of the character is ignorant and set in her ways, not hateful and stuck up, and this performance adds a great deal of tension to the film.
Shot in a bright palette of colors with a broad range of comedic styles, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has something for everyone. All the jokes might not land as well as they could, but the overwhelming sense of humanity and grounded realism make this a sweet gem of a film.
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