From “A Room with a View” to “Enchanted April,” it’s been a movie truism that British people have to leave Britain if they want to unshackle themselves from their soul-crushing Britishness. And so we have “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” in which a handful of pensioners set off to retire in India, where they learn life lessons, fall in love, and get a second chance at being useful.
It’s basically a feel-good fantasy for the Rascal set, but “Marigold” proves itself rather hard to resist, from the colorful, sun-soaked delights of Jaipur (as captured by cinematographer Ben Davis) to a cast of heavy-hitters who know how to take the slight screenplay by Oliver Parker (based on a novel by Deborah Maggoch) and spin it into comedic, and even dramatic, gold.
When a luxury retirement village called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly & Beautiful begins advertising its services in the United Kingdom, it piques the interest of several retirees. Widow Evelyn (Judi Dench) hopes to start her life over, independent for the first time; Douglas (Bill Nighy) and his perpetually furious wife Jean (Penelope Wilton) are looking to economize after Douglas lost their savings investing in an internet start-up; Graham (Tom Wilkinson) looks forward to returning to the India of his youth to settle some unfinished business; and senior singletons Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup) are hot to trot, but decidedly not with each other.
And then there’s the grumpy and outspokenly racist Muriel (Maggie Smith), who’s had her hip surgery outsourced by the National Health Service as part of a pilot program. Armed with a carry-on bag full of pickles and chocolate biscuits, she’s determined to hightail it out of India as soon as she’s recovered.
Upon arrival, the Brits discover that hotelier Sonny (Dev Patel) has exaggerated the hotel’s amenities, even its structural soundness, but they all adjust in varying degrees. Over the course of a few weeks, hearts will be opened and broken, new opportunities will avail themselves, and these codgers will discover that life has more to offer than the script they’ve been handed as senior citizens.
There’s not much daring or unpredictable about anything that unfolds here, but director John Madden (“The Debt,” “Shakespeare in Love”) has assembled an extraordinary cast and bends over backwards to keep the proceedings as crowd-pleasing as possible. The result is a movie that isn’t going to redefine cinema for anyone but will nonetheless make perfect counter-programming against “The Avengers.” (And if you’re looking for a movie to take mom to for Mother’s Day, this might be just the ticket.)
Madden straddles the line when it comes to portraying India; he never makes the country look a colonial hellhole, nor does buff Jaipur’s rougher edges or turn the movie into a postcard-pretty travelogue. His modern approach is perhaps best captured in a market scene where Douglas tries teaching Evelyn how to haggle, only to discover that that sort of bargaining went out with Kipling and old Hollywood movies.
Dench and Wilkinson are given the most to do, and they make the most of the opportunity, but no one here is phoning it in. The whole cast of pros knows exactly how to milk a laugh here, or pause for poignancy there, and by the end, it’s hard not to be carried along by a movie that offers not one single surprise. It’s a cup of tea made no less satisfying by the fact that you’ll know how it’s going to taste every sip of the way.