OLD IS GOLD
Underneath the banter and good cheer of John Madden's melodrama, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel based on a novel by Deborah Moggach, are two very bitter truths -- the universal wretchedness of old age and inevitable death, and the end of European dominance over the world which has lasted well over four centuries. Suddenly, geriatrics from the Queen's land are struggling to survive in a recession-hit economy on their meagre savings (not particularly wanted as they feel in any case) and turn to third-world India to spend their retirement years in a run-down (but perhaps once exotic) hotel in Jaipur. The empire lays down its arms with humility (sometimes grudgingly), embracing the simplicity and the squalour of its erstwhile subjects and accepting the inevitability of its decline.
In this act of acquiescence lies the film's great triumph. And in the performances of a sterling cast of veteran British stars (not including Dev Patel who acts like he's in a fifth grade school production) that embodies the pathos, the humiliation, the spirit and the doggedness of old age. All of the actors themselves are, naturally, well into their sunset years and most of them exhibit more spunk than young stars supposedly at the top of their game.
It's virtually impossible to choose between the dignified sadness of Judi Dench's Evelyn, recently bereaved and taking charge of her life for the first time ever, Maggie Smith's grumpy Muriel who has condescended to take this trip only because she cannot afford a hip replacement in the UK but stubbornly refuses to engage with lesser mortals of inferior colour ("They move in packs," she says of Indians), Tom Wilkinson's compassionate and worldly-wise Graham and Bill Nighy's weary but sensitive Douglas who scours every corner of the city in an effort to embrace his new home wholeheartedly.
Their arrival at the Marigold Hotel isn't very convincingly etched. Why would a pack of senior citizens take such a huge leap of faith and arrive at an unknown destination in a part of the world most of them have never seen and generally considered uninhabitable by Western standards without any proper planning? The abode they've been sold in the brochure is obviously nothing like the dump they eventually discover and at least some of them are distinctly uncomfortable about their predicament, particularly Graham's snobbish wife who ultimately cuts the most poignant and pathetic figure of all.
Interspersed with their individual stories and evolution (quite neat in the vein of popular tearjerkers) are the flavours and colours of India -- chaotic streets, busy markets, bureaucratic obduracy and ever-smiling, welcoming natives. Of course all of these are cliches, and yet, in a film as well-meaning as this, they don't offend. There's a fuzzy quality to the screenplay, peppered with adequate doses of humour and a simple enough message -- "Everything will be all right in the end... if it's not all right then it's not the end," which the film lives out to the last letter.