“Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, it is not yet the end.” - Sonny.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (TBEMH) is one of those occasional films that remind us that you can have a very enjoyable movie without CGI, guns, explosions, and gratuitous (but fun) sex. It’s about the story – and a story is about people and problems, not necessarily props and pyrotechnics. Based on the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach, the film is actually called The Best Exotic Margold Hotel for the Elderly & Beautiful, but we’ll go with the shorter version.
Another short version is to say that the film is about seven people, all in their “upper” years, are facing their own crossroads upon retirement, and it seems all of their roads lead to Jaipur, India. Brief, but it’s not efficient for describing the film. The best way to do that would be to break down each character, explain why they are at TBEMH, and examine what the hell is wrong with them.
Evelyn, pronounced “Ēvelyn” (Judi Dench), recently widowed and escaping her children’s appeals for common sense, is guided by her newly-found chance for adventure. Her dearly departed husband must have done everything for her because she can barely work the internet, which she calls the “interweb.” She has likely never had a responsibility in her life, but she very quickly learns how to start and keep a blog so that her kids can stay in touch as she documents the next phase of her life. Before deciding on going to India, she had a most unpleasant telephone experience with an operator at an Indian call center. After arriving, she realizes that those outsourced call center operators do not know enough about the “foreigners” they often speak with. This, and her dead husband’s squandering of their savings, prompts her to get a job training them to better understand how to interact with the rest of the world that is at the other end of the phone.
Judge Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkerson) is stepping down after more than two dozen years on the bench. He is returning to his childhood home to find an old friend who was more than just a friend. Graham is gay. As a boy and then a teenager in India, he and the son of a servant began a friendship that eventually became a romantic relationship. However, he has not seen the man in more than 30 years and has returned to find him and possibly apologizing for having abandoned him. At the same time, his knowledge of India and its customs helps the others cope with being strangers in a strange land. Each day the judge attempts to track down his old friend. Eventually, he is successful, but he is being followed.
Jean and Douglas Ainslie (Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy) are a couple battling both a dwindled retirement investment and each other’s vastly different attitudes, and this broken-down hotel is the best they can afford. On almost a daily basis, Jean is following Judge Graham. She has spent 40 years berating her husband with lines such as when she says, “When I want your opinion, I’ll tell you what it is.” She’s an uppity bully who thinks she’s worth more than she really is, both morally and financially. While verbally trashing her husband, the hotel, and the country, she’s also got her sights set on the judge. It is no wonder that her husband Douglas has his sights set on Evelyn, whose every kind word does not go unnoticed.
Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), a racist, former housekeeper, is told she must wait months for a hip replacement in England, so she takes advantage of a free flight, cheaper rate, and immediate surgery in India. She’s very skeptical about anyone of another race performing the operation, but the pain is too great to wait. She’s rude to the staff at the hotel, but her rudeness is misinterpreted in a good way by a non-English speaking housekeeper who is usually just ignored by the guests. What she is in India to learn is obvious. How she learns it and what she helps others to learn is not so obvious but is certain a bright spot of the film.
Norman (Ronald Pickup) is lonely and horny. So is Madge (Celia Imrie). You would think they’d be a perfect match, but what they seek is more than just a booty call. Norman is very up front about himself, despite using the name John Smith when going to a doctor for Viagra. Madge attempts to get a discount at a social club by pretending to be a member of the Royal Family and specifically asks about the population of wealthy bachelors. She says she is “single by choice, just not my choice.” She even shows a hint that she might have lost her interest in men. Meanwhile, she helps set Norman up with an English woman living in India. He is not shy and willing to admit what he wants, but he’s just having trouble finding someone who is interested.
They all choose to stay at TBEMH either because of an adventurous nature or they were fooled by altered pictures and exaggerated descriptions on the hotel’s website. TBEMH is run by Sonny is easily my favorite character and played by Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) with brilliant optimism and energy. He has a positive answer for everything, including while someone is plotting out how to demolish the hotel as well as the quote at the very beginning of this review. Unfortunately for Sonny, his mother (Lilette Divey) lacks the vision he has for the family business that is scheduled to be sold by his brothers. Mrs. Kapoor, like the hotel guests, has also experienced a loss, that being her husband’s life after devoting it to the failing hotel, but Sonny knows he can bring it back provided that his mother gains some patience and he gains some financial backing. By the end of the film, there are three new romances, two failed attempts, and one death.
In total, this may have been more than you might have wanted to read, but each story is important to the big picture. Director John Madden fabulously balances a hefty ensemble cast. Back in ’99 he directed Shakespeare in Love to win Best Picture but did not get Best Director, which is almost always the case with the winner of Best Picture. Reason likely being that it was the same year as Saving Private Ryan.
As Evelyn says, “The person who risks nothing, does nothing, (and) has nothing.” TBEMH is about the willingness to take chances, go someplace new, and learn something new. It is also a reminder that regardless of who you are and what you have done, there is always someone who you can learn something from and someone who can learn something from you.