The journey of growing old portrayed in films has always fascinated me. It’s one thing to speak to the perils and adventures of being young and finding one’s identity, but it’s another thing entirely when characters find themselves years beyond all those moments. “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a movie hard to sum up in one genre, but its main purpose is to speak to the experience of old age — with an ensemble of personalities that are significantly unique. What bonds them is their unified interest in finding what life still remains. Yes, the film’s answers are simplistic, and made to resolve satisfyingly. But the story that leads us to that end is worth the watch.
We are introduced in rapid-fire fashion to the seven seniors who all in their own way find reasons to leave simultaneously leave England behind to relocate to a Indian tourist which promises an escape for the “elderly and beautiful.” Some come with limited intentions, others have plans to make this their final destination. Evelyn (Judi Dench) acts as the film’s narrator, an energetic woman recently turned widow, looking to make her life her own. 180 degrees opposite is Muriel (Maggie Smith), an ailing woman in need of more than just a hip replacement — she needs her racist, unwelcoming disposition changed. Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is the optimist, and most relatable of the ensamble. Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton) are the solo couple, and not especially content in their marriage. Madge (Celia Imrie) finds herself searching for a husband in India while Norman (Ronald Pickup) has similar aspirations, but simply wants the pleasures that accompany a woman’s companionship before time runs out.
When the characters eventually assemble at The Exotic Marigold Hotel, they soon find that its touch of the exotic begins and ends with its tall auspicious walls. This is no more than a facade hidng a host of dusty rooms that lack any hint of class or exquisite furnishings. Some of the guests’ quarters may be missing a door or a faucet that closes properly. Sonny (Dev Patel) is the exuberant and amusing owner, a young man with ambition but few results. The hotel, left to him by his father, is no more than a skeleton of a building. It is immediately apparent that the hotel is an intentional, somewhat exaggerated symbol of its patrons’ lacking existences.
The storyline doesn’t try much to mask its obvious setup, as we are simply waiting for all the different seniors to begin their individual journeys through the streets of the town located a days journey from Mumbai. Finding inspiration from Deborah Moggach’s novel “These Foolish Things,” it is defined constantly by its literary flow as characters discover their own experiences. Evelyn and Graham are the most developed, who leave the walls of the hotel almost immediately, each looking for a very specific redemption for their lives. Evelyn goes searching for an identity, something she never had while married to her late husband. She finds it in a local call center. Graham on the the other hand, has a darker history, having lived in India many years before. His only hope is to rekindle an ancient friendship.
Indeed the Marigold Hotel is a character unto itself, the surrounding locale of India tries to be one as well. The seven individuals have their various interactions with the culture, but the city they are within at times feels no more than a pretty backdrop. Director John Madden definitely captures the rhythm and visual elements of the culture, but the locals seems oddly like characatures. This is especially for Dev Patel’s Sonny, who conveys the social struggles of his traditional society, still has this distracting nature that seems like he is trying to fit within the “Indian” stereotypes. This is not just the case for his interpretation, but the remaining Indian characters seem to be lacking true authenticity.
There comes a time in the film where each of the elderly guests must chose to embrace their newly acquired identites in this strange, magnificent culture. In Graham’s case, he discovers resolution he never dreamed possible, a reality that kept him from ever truly living. His condition sums up the truth for the rest of the characters. Whether it is love lost, love gained, purpose renewed, or significance found, all of the seven individuals go through a visible change. The story is predictable, the situations familiar, but if the story has anything to offer is the simplicity in which it conveys the basic truths of human experience. It’s stories like these that no matter the subject matter, new perspectives of life (especially those later in age) can never grow clichèd. And we all need our own Marigold Hotel every once in a while, no matter how young or old.