In an efficient sequence at the beginning of his delightful film, the director John Madden depicts the frustrations among Westerners in their increasingly outsourcing world. Newly-widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench), eager to be tech-savvy, is exasperated when a heavily-accented telecommunications call centre staff insists on speaking only to the account-holder — her deceased husband.
If The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel appears to be a cruel imperialist joke on Britain’s former colony, India, the funny and heartwarming drama that unfolds is anything but.
Based on Deborah Moggach’s novel, the movie takes us into the lives of Evelyn and six other pensioners who seek to make the most out of their autumnal years.
Forced out of her marital home for the settling of her dead husband’s debts, Evelyn declines her son’s invitation to live with him; instead she longs for a life of newfound independence. Married couple Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton), unhappy with what the leftover money from hapless investments in their daughter’s start-up bust can offer them by way of retirement care in the UK, look elsewhere to get more for what they have. Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a judge, finally decides to retire, and to find his then forbidden childhood love. And while Madge (Celia Imrie), like Norman (Ronald Pickup), will do anything to reignite carnal desires – even if it means overseas outsourcing of erotic partners — Muriel (Maggie Smith), an inveterate racist, considers the unthinkable arrangement of having her hip replaced in faraway India.
So, we follow as this greying seven journey to Jaipur, lured by the promise of luxury, amid “arches and canopied balconies”, in their quest for an exotic yet affordable Indian Palace to spend out their golden years.
The memorable shot in which the characters are seen occupying a row of interconnected airport seats marks how the seven disparate lives are soon to become linked.
As it turns out, the palace of their dreams is not to be. The hotel is positively neglected, dilapidated, in ruins, despite its young febrile manager Sonny’s (Dev Patel) huge plans to refurbish it. Still, the group settles in, each in their own, however idiosyncratic, way.
Ben Davis’ cinematography captures the panoramic frenzy of the Indian city brilliantly: the colour, the squeeze, the noise and the dust. And yet, in amongst the chaos and the cacophony, he does not forget to show the bucolic peace and the culture’s spirituality: one scene in which a lone white swan is shot gracefully flying into the horizon, after Graham’s personal redemption for a lifelong guilt, is particularly indelible — to say nothing of the sacred ceremony after his death.
While some may find Moggach’s story somewhat fluffy, and the premise unlikely, Ol Parker’s screenplay more than makes up for it: some lines, ostensibly narrated by Evelyn on her adventure blog, are so delicious, they make one hunger for more servings.
Nevertheless, the film inarguably owes its audience enthusiasm to the stellar cast: veteran actors Dench and Wilkinson are clearly in their element — natural, at ease, and eminently lustrous — while Nighy, Pickup and Imrie too live out their characters well. And whilst Wilton’s role may not be the most likeable, she gives nervy Jean an emotional, if explosive, odyssey. The standout is still Smith, nonetheless. Her initial portrayal of the cavalier Muriel is utterly authentic, her later change of attitude is sincere, and the overall effect altogether shimmering.
On one level, the story is what Evelyn says it is i.e. never to give up trying , even in one’s sunset years. And that the only “failure is the failure to try”. But, it is also about correcting any Western mindset that may be entrenched in preconceived bias.
If Muriel is Moggach’s way of redeeming the Brits’ famous snootiness, the narrative is the writer’s effort in altering prejudices against those Asian countries to which western industries have been contracted — be it aged care, healthcare, call centres, or, yes, love.
So, next time, when you find yourself fuming over a call centre automaton, think instead about how the phenomenon of outsourcing could perhaps one day open your life to a world of untold riches.