The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel from the third row (Movie Notes)

8 May

I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for any film starring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, or Billy Nighy. Put them together and add Penelope Wilton (who has come to U.S. attention via Downtown Abbey) and I’m SO there. Me and hundreds of other people it seems. We scooted into the theater as the credits began and had to crawl into the middle of the third row to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel last weekend. It was more crowded than any children’s film I’ve seen lately. Despite the crick in my neck, I laughed heartily and didn’t even mind lowering the average audience age (for once!).

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[MILD SPOILER ALERT] 

Summary:A group British retirees travels to Jaipur, India to begin their retirement at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The hotel’s advertising promises a recently renovated residence providing luxurious retirement at an affordable price. The reality is quickly revealed: The Marigold is a run-down building, operated by Sonny (Dev Patel), the third, and least successful, son of a well-to-do Delhi family. Despite failure and catastrophe, Sonny maintains an attitude to match his name. And The Marigold, “catering to the beautiful and the elderly,” slowly reveals its own charms.

Each of the seven hotel guests have chosen this exotic retirement mostly because they lack other options. Their financial, romantic, physical, and emotional situations give each a different ability to manage the new surroundings. In the colors, smells, sounds, and tastes of Jaipur, Jean feels “an assault on the senses” and remains cloistered in the hotel garden all day. Her husband Douglas simply takes things as they come, immersing himself in the culture and opening his heart to new experiences and friendships. Evelyn sees a new beginning, finds a job, and discovers self-reliance. Graham seeks absolution and closure for a love   a lifetime ago.  Muriel needs a new hip and then wants to go home. Norman and Madge hope that the change of scenery will help them prove they are still desirable.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel captivated and enchanted me. It brings Jaipur alive in a way that showcases the kindness of its people, as well as the colors, crowds, and cacophony.  India’s diversity is not often seen, I don’t think, in films about India or Indian immigrants that make it to major release in the U.S. I don’t want to generalize, but I immediately think of cross-cultural or cross-generational romance and/or conflict (Bend It Like Beckham; Bhaji on the Beach; Brick Lane); Bollywood glitz and music (Monsoon Wedding); and grit and glory (Slum Dog Millionaire). This film is about a community that is open to new people and new ideas; those new people just have to settle in.

The cultural and generational conflicts depicted in this film resonate with those we’ve seen in other British Indian films, certainly. They are set apart because the paradigm is turned upside down: The British are the immigrants and the setting is in a charming though rundown hotel in India, rather than a working class apartment complex in a gritty neighborhood in London. We’re not seeing Indian immigrants struggling to balance their cultural constraints with a modern, British way of life, thwarted by a sometimes narrow-minded reception of the Other by the Brits themselves. Rather, we see British immigrants, welcomed warmly by Jaipuris, struggling to shed their preconceived notion of India, and of themselves. Their hosts appreciate the commerce they bring, and their willingness to learn the culture and participate in the city’s life.

My favorite moments in the film, which are not spoilers: Muriel and Madge not quite confronting each other, a lovely Maggie Smith/Penelope Wilton moment. These two go at it in the most civilized manner in Downton Abbey, all upper class and polite. In this film, each can speak her mind and does, brilliantly, caustically, and hysterically. Madge tells Douglas, “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.” Love that!

In another moment, Muriel, who has been quietly observing everyone and not commenting or participating in the life of the hotel, subtly and succinctly protects Muriel from a goodbye she’s not ready to say.  She proves herself, in both instances, to be an extraordinary friend, stealthy but protective. Her struggle, it seems, is that she hates being taken care of but thrives in caring for others. Wilton, Smith and Dench are, of course magnificent in their roles. But, Maggie Smith shined for me, unadulterated delight whose character grows in subtle ways.

One reviewer has called this film a “metaphor for aging,” and I suppose this is true. It also offers openings to discuss honesty in relationships; global commerce and outsourcing; and cross-cultural understanding.

I particularly liked the depiction of industry: Sonny comments that he’s sure he’ll be successful because people all over the world would be willing to outsource old age. Outsourcing jobs to India is, of course, a major concern in this country. Illustratively, Sonny’s girlfriend works in a call center talking to older (presumably foreign) people all day. The manager, her brother, hires Evelynbecauseof her age, thinking she can coach the young, ambitious Indians to speak more naturally to older (British) people.  She’s wildly successful, not to mention funny, in doing so. Furthering this theme, Sonny understands hospitality and has a good business plan, but he can’t manage his business or demonstrate viability to his investor or his mother. Muriel, the oldest and most staid of the guests, proves his salvation. Both Evelyn and Muriel might be metaphors for the notion that it takes cross-generational and cross-cultural cooperation and partnership to make global commerce function.

In another fascinating side story, Muriel acknowledges her server, an “untouchable,” with a smile when the woman tempts her to eat by offering a favorite biscuit. In gratitude she invites Muriel to meet her family. Despite Muriel’s distrust for anyone not “British” or whose skin color is darker than hers, she forms a bond with this woman and with her own doctor, who serves as her translator and guide.  It’s a nuanced commentary on learned racism and how it might be unlearned as we get to know people instead of clinging to stereotypes. There is a similar storyline about tolerance for homosexuality that I won’t spoil because it is, in many ways, the heart of the film.

Ultimately, every story in this ensemble film leads to one conclusion: Even in old age we can shed our preconceptions, open our eyes and hearts, and forge a new beginning.

Sonny lives by one saying, “Everything will turn out all right in the end. If it’s not all right, then it’s not the end.”  He made me wish for one more stumble before The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel turns out all right in the end.

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