“There’s more than the senses can prepare in this riot of noise and colour”
So narrates Judi Dench’s Evelyn in her daily blog from India. The same Evelyn that didn’t know her wifi from her broadband at the beginning of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but let that pass for a moment. Having been to Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur myself, I know first hand about that riot of noise and colour, where all of life takes place on the streets. It would take a phenomenally incompetent cinematographer and director not to depict the colours and textures of India with beauty, and thankfully, neither in this case bodged the job.
The whole enterprise must have looked equally sure-fire at the start: a truly splendid cast of British character actors, of the sort who have breathed life into British films since movie-making began (in no particular order: Dames Judi & Maggie, Tom Wilkinson, Celia Imrie, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton and Ronald Pickup), supplemented by the talents of Dev Patel and several fine Indian actors; a script that while not wholly consistent does deliver a number of good laughs; and the whole concept of a feel good romcom, that most saleable of modern commodities.
If you’ve seen the preview, you will have spotted most of the great one-liners, which are thankfully spread democratically among the cast:
Dench: “You’re not worried about the dangers of sex at your age?”
Pickup: “If she dies, she dies”
Dench: “I need a glass of water” (downs drink)
Imrie: “That was gin and tonic.”
Dench (swallows hard): “I know that now.”
The problems start with the fact that TBEMH is not a new and original idea at all. In fact, it’s a very old idea in new clothing for the travel-conscious 21st Century: take an assortment of characters, plonk them into a culturally unfamiliar landscape, given each of them an agenda, watch them make the miraculous adaptation to their new environment, write a happy ending (“In India we have a saying, ‘everything will be alright in the end’. And if it’s not alright, it not yet the end.”)
True to form, great though the actors are, their characters are stereotypical hams: the widow rediscovering life; the hen-pecked husband; the hen-pecking wife; the old lech looking for love; the hoity-toity one; the one looking for his roots; and the change-resistant old fart with attitudes that came with the ark. Perhaps worse still, the naively enthusiastic hotel manager whose mother wants to sell the hotel and give him an arranged marriage shows India in a hackneyed light, though the depiction of the new v old Indian lives has a ring of truth.
The turnaround comes in no more than a reel: Judi Dench loves her job as cultural advisor in a call centre (wish she could work some magic with some of the call centres I get put on to); Maggie Smith’s bigot discovers that families are not so very different in India, and ends up working in the revamped hotel as assistant manager; Penelope Wilton’s dragon leaves for home and Bill Nighy’s pathetic husband (this being ‘Nighy lite’ – same characteristics and mannerisms he usually plays, just downplayed) finds his metier and joie de vivre touring Indian palaces with Dench; Pickup picks up an Anglo-Indian lady at an expensive club and bewilderingly ends up moving in with her; and even stranger, Wilkinson’s gay ex-judge finds the Indian whose life he ruined through their brief affair and shares a warm embrace, watched by the chap’s wife, before popping his clogs. And of course, Patel defies his mother too marry his true love and to keep the hotel. Predictable and safe all round, and much too quick in almost all cases to allow the audience to suspend disbelief.
But in spite of the wealth of talent on display, star of the show for me is the cool, dry and wry Celia Imrie, playing Madge. She is a joy to watch, steals every scene she is in with her sly winks and on-screen pzazz. A great talent who sadly never seems to get the roles to showcase her versatility and skill.
For me, the biggest problem comes in the fact that a film that is obviously intended to leave the audience both smiling and with tears in their collective eyes left me curiously unmoved. Maybe it will tug at your heartstrings, but somehow it should do better to involve the audience in these characters. So overall, slightly less than the sum of its parts but I would encourage everyone to see prime talent and a glorious country. In fact, cut out the middleman and go to India yourself – unlike Ms Wilton’s Jean you won’t be disappointed!