Thursday, April 5, 2012

Review: "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

Just about everyone in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a light comedy-drama from John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) may be in retirement, but to label the film an "old person's movie" would be a huge disservice. Boasting a fine assembly of some of Britain's finest actors, Madden's latest film does, unfortunately, set itself up for nothing more than cliches. But this is mostly in the results, meaning that even though Marigold trips up in some of its conclusions, the journey is still very much worth taking. 

The film opens with a series of efficient introductions to its cast of characters, all of them British retirees who, in one way or another, find themselves sent to India as part of the next (and likely final) stage of their retirement. The characters range from Evelyn, a housewife who recently lost her husband (Judi Dench) to recently-retired judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson). Meanwhile, the group of seven stay at the titular (and severely misrepresented) Marigold Hotel under the watch of Sonny (Dev Patel), the young, idealistic manager. The film as a whole is generally light on plot from that point forward, although that usually works in its favor. 

Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker allow the characters and the audience to get a sense of the beauty and chaos that is India, without ever falling into the trap of becoming an accidental National Geographic special. And even though it runs just over two hours, Marigold never feels like it overstays its welcome. Certain characters and subplots are sometimes left alone for too long (particularly Sonny's relationship with his girlfriend), but once they come up again, the film executes them well. Madden and his tremendously gifted cast create a wonderful atmosphere, tinged with the right mix of comedy and drama, that the proceedings only begin to feel slight in one of the film's most critical sequences near the end, where nearly everything is resolved too neatly for its own good. 

So much of what makes the film enjoyable to watch is how it uses the Indian setting (as well as the clash of cultures) to inform the character study across the ensemble. Among the film's best segments are those revolving around Wilkinson, whose character is the only one of the group to have been to India before. That the character is returning to India (where he actually grew up) marks a nice contrast to the other stories. He is going to live out his last days back where it all started, whereas everyone else is going further from home than they've ever been. These are the sorts of narratives that don't seem to require the most concrete resolutions, except that the script insists on them anyway, completely throwing off Madden's lovely vision of India as a land that assaults all of one's senses at once. The film's final sequence rectifies this to a degree, ending on a note that feels more in line with more open, character-based style, but the big scene, which resolves three or four problems all in rapid-fire succession, comes off as a weak attempt to ramp up the dramatic tension in the story, and it feels wholly unnecessary. Yes, elements in Marigold are cliched, but they don't feel cliched thanks to the execution, that is until the above-mentioned scene comes along and calls direct attention to it. 

Thankfully, even the film's weakest moments are elevated by the stellar ensemble. In fact, the benefit of having a cast that isn't young at all is that everyone is a pro at this, and one never gets the sense that any of them are trying too hard (though it's a shame that Downton Abbey co-stars Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith never have a chance to engage in any verbal smack downs). This isn't to say that the cast puts in the bare minimum of effort, merely that there's a level of comfortability so that one never has to worry about one odd member of the group throwing the balance of the ensemble off due to less experience. The behind-the-scenes team isn't too shabby either. Thomas Newman's score captures the scenes nicely without becoming overbearing or getting in the way of the actors. More impressive is Ben Davis' cinematography, which captures the wild range of texture and color that India has to offer in any number of sumptuously photographed scenes. Newman and Davis' work stands out just the right amount, never calling too much attention to itself, while still smoothing out some of the bumps in the screenplay through their contributions to the film's atmosphere. 

So despite the cliches that ultimately mar the resolution, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has so much going for it that it's hard to knock it down too much. This is a measured, though still heartfelt film about aging and new beginnings that, despite its older cast, has something in it for a wide range of ages. It's also a reminder that Mr. Madden, while having never topped the success of Shakespeare in Love over a decade ago, remains a sensitive and effective film maker whose work is still worth following. 

Grade: B


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