Geriatric sex and dignity

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Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (M). Director: John Madden. Starring: Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Dev Patel. 123 minutes

'It's about a group of British seniors who retire to a nursing home in India.' My colleague's face turned slack with boredom before I'd even finished this thumbnail synopsis. His stupefied expression was so comical that I burst out laughing. 'No, it's much better than it sounds on paper!' I insisted.

It is too, due in overwhelming part to an ensemble cast that consists of, frankly, some of the finest film actors in any age group, let alone the 60s to late 70s bracket they currently inhabit. Any film that features the likes of Smith and Dench and Wilkinson and Nighy would surely be worthwhile, regardless of any other shortcomings.

A prologue introduces the characters and establishes their motives for moving from England to India. Bereaved Evelyn (Dench) is faced with selling her home to pay off her late husband's debts. Supreme court judge Graham (Wilkinson) has unfinished business in India that dates back to his youth. For the unashamedly racist Muriel (Smith) the trip represents an opportunity to expedite hip surgery.

The relatively youthful but tightly wound Jean (Wilton) is appalled at the prospect of moving into a retirement village; she and her affable husband Douglas (Nighy) see India as a chance to extend their horizons and prolong their independence. Madge (Imrie), on the other hand, is on the hunt for what will be only her most recent rich husband, while ageing tomcat Norman (Pickup) simply wants to get laid.

These characters (strangers when the film begins) travel and arrive together at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful, a once splendid but now rundown establishment whose reality does not yet match the vision of its optimistic young proprieter, Sonny (Patel). The new residents, many of whom have not strayed this far beyond England's shores, settle into abodes that are far less luxurious than they had anticipated.

Ol Parker's screenplay (based on Deborah Moggach's novel These Foolish Things) makes less than you might expect of the (predictable) clash-of-cultures, elderly-fish-out-of-water aspects of this scenario. There is the obligatory montage of the residents rushing to the toilet to relieve bowels that are unaccustomed to rich curries. But the film largely eschews 'poverty porn' and the India clichés of sardine-tin crowds and swatches of colour.

In place of the garishness of brightly coloured fabrics and spice markets director Madden for the most part opts for a soberer colour scheme, and the action is bathed in clean yellow light. The characters' move to India, it seems, is not merely about stepping outside of comfort zones, but also stepping beyond the familiar in order to examine life and self in, literally, a new light.

The fact that Jean — the most repressed and negative of the characters —refuses to leave the grounds of the hotel therefore seems to speak less of a fear of cultural difference than of an apprehension for self-examination. At the other end of the spectrum, Graham sojourns easily beyond the walls, questing to resolve a long held regret. His is the most affecting story, assisted greatly by Wilkinson's incomparable gravitas.

Each of the characters has their own story within the broader narrative: Evelyn seeks to attain independence; Muriel, a former service employee for a rich family, develops a fondness for a maid at the hotel that transcends her racial prejudices (and turns her into the film's unlikely hero); Madge and Norman's respective searches for romantic partners are played mostly for comic effect.

Accross the board, there is a sense that the calibre of actors have lifted what could have been a middling film to something that is above average. They bring life and warmth to something that in lesser hands could have been dull and sentimental, and lend credence to its frank considerations of geriatric dignity, sexuality and mortality.

'Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, then it is not yet the end,' chimes Sonny, expounding a personal motto that is also a kind of de facto thematic banner for the film. This philosophy is rather appealing, despite being somewhat cheesy. Much like the film itself.


 Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

 


Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Bes Exotic Marigold Hotel, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy

 

 

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Existing comments

Couldn't agree more. The autumn of life has the potential to be very colorful: wisdom, humour, care, patience and joy may bloom splendidly just before we die. What better place for middle-aged (?) Brits to blossom (and die) than in post-colonial India. Director John Madden has captured the spirit of the times for people of a certain age and a certain culture that I can identify with - except that I love Indian food. Highly recommended for the wrinklies and those who seek to understand them a little better. And be amused.
Uncle Pat | 29 March 2012


Not sure if eating a hot curry is great pre-coitus, but TGFV! (Thank God For Viagra)
AURELIUS | 29 March 2012


I look forward to seeing this film, after having seen the shorts at the Nova. It reminds me of a good German film called 'Cloud Nine' which is about the sex life of people in their '60's.
Mark Doyle | 29 March 2012


To be in the theatre watching, viewing this film was enjoyment. To hear the laughter of the 60's and 70's plus audience was an unexpected bonus that added significant value to the price we paid for the tickets ... and the ice cream.
John Swanston | 29 March 2012


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