Bear with me here.
On Friday, Fox Searchlight will throw THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL directly into the path of the mega-buster that is The Avengers. (Well, in 27 big-city theatres, anyway.) It’s tempting, of course, to see this as classic counterprogramming, a play for the stodgy crowd that wouldn’t be caught dead in 3D glasses. But in a sense, Marigold Hotel features its own SHIELD, a Murderers Row of acting heroes, each with a superpower. Maggie Smith, even without her McGonagall spells, can wither any man or woman into a fetal position with a single well-aimed remark. Bill Nighy can wring so many complicated emotions out of a simple shrug that surely some genetic manipulation must be involved. Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson, too, can outact whole alien brigades of lesser performers.
OK, maybe not.
Marigold Hotel, while doomed to be a mere footnote to a weekend that could be of historic proportions, is a very pleasant one. The story, written for the screen by Ol Parker and based on a novel by Deborah Moggach, has a septet of English people who are of, or perhaps a bit beyond, a certain age (the 4 above plus Penelope Wilton as Nighy’s wife, Celia Imrie as a woman seeking a rich husband to support her, and Ronald Pickup as a determined roue) deciding to take up residence in Mombai, where the ever-cheerful Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) has re-opened the titular hotel. His website proclaims it as a place where retirees on a budget can live in outsourced luxury, although the truth is somewhat less resplendent. Nevertheless, Sony’s exaggerations serve to convince the group, each of whom has their own reasons to travel: among them, Muriel (Smith) needs a hip operation that would rquire a long wait in the UK; Douglas and Jean (Nighy and Wilton) can’t afford more than a depressing assisted living residence at home; Evelyn (Dench) has decided her life needs some excitement; and Graham (Wilkinson), who lived in India as a young man, yearns to rediscover some youthful dreams.
The drama and comedy of Marigold Hotel comes from the ability of the newcomers to adapt to their often startling surroundings. Most of them (Wilton is the cranky exception) find themselves adjusting to the country’s different concepts of time and environment, and gradually start to climb out of the shells that they’ve lived in most of their lives. The movie may largely be travelogue as narrative, but it’s a thoroughly charming one. Director John Madden, who worked with Wilkinson and Dench on Shakespeare In Love, is on much firmer ground here than he was in his recent thrillers The Debt and Killshot, and he knows that given this cast and the gorgeous locations (the cinematography is by Ben Davis), and a civilized, intelligent script that knows how and when to push emotional buttons, it’s best to stand back and let everyone do their jobs.
Marigold Hotel is an actors’ showcase, and this cast doesn’t fumble a cue. It’s marvelous to see Maggie Smith, so often imperious, fold away her Downton Abbey upstairs hauteur and play someone lower-class (although similarly concealing a good heart under a frosty exterior), and to watch a friendship develop between Dench and Wilkinson’s characters. The movie is sentimental, but it earns its emotional payoffs, and the story’s endings, while pat, are very satisfying.
No cities are blown off the map in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and characters who disagree exchange a few mildly harsh words instead of heaving each other into buildings. The average age of the protagonists is probably double (at least) those of The Avengers. But if the multiplex gets too noisy and crowded this weekend, and you’re in the mood for a leisurely 2-hour vacation, Marigold Hotel is a congenial place to stay.