When the charming and lively Sonny, a young member of the modern Indian generation, is left to mind the dilapidated old estate shared between him and his brothers, he optimistically undertakes to transform it into the luxurious, opulent "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the elderly and beautiful. Although the pieces of this glorious endeavour are not quite yet in place, he nevertheless sets it in motion and, through the magic of digital advertising, entices a predictably varied but not overly oddball group of English seniors to spend a couple months there. Naturally, the unwitting guests discover a multitude of faults and fissures in the supposed regal paradise, but most of them are content to embrace the earthiness and unpredictability of this profoundly different country, neatly captured by the sprightly manager's frequent reply of the Indian saying "Everything will be all right in the end... if it's not all right then it's not the end". However, the concerns of his typically traditionalist mother are much harder to brush off, particularly as she doubts not only his ability to succeed with the hotel, but the appropriateness of his spunky girlfriend and hopeful fiancé, Sunaina. Although that plot summary makes it seem as though Sonny and his romantic involvements are the centrepiece of this winsome comic creation, this really is an ensemble piece in which screen time is divided fairly evenly between its dozen or so characters, but inevitably there are a select handful of separate stories that attract more interest and emotional involvement than the others.
The jovial and kindly Evelyn is by far the most sympathetic of the women, as her brave personal endeavour to have her first adventure without her dear late husband carries a realistic sentimentality that's much more digestible than the old, overused "star-crossed lovers" plot line. The graceful and fearless Judi Dench heads the cavalry very well with the character whose poignant introductory scene opens the movie, and whose daily blog makes her the film's part-time narrator as well. Although, surprisingly, it is among the men that the most heart wrenching sub-plot can be found. Tom Wilkinson gives a very passionate performance as Graham, a particularly unwilling retiree whose long-gone period of residency in India contains is embroiled in his own tragic romantic entanglements that allow him to sympathise with Evelyn. The scene where the two of them openly discuss their past and their emotional trauma is one of the film's most powerful scenes, so it would be terrible of me to disclose any more of Graham's tale.
The other two male produce many more laughs than tears, although the amusement isn't always intentional.
Ronald Pickup has great fun playing a restless wanderer with an insatiable sexual appetite that the film initially concedes is repellent, but soon grows to accept that one is never too old to enjoy youthful pleasures. It also bears no shame in showing Evelyn develop a loving companionship with the very compassionate Douglas (a grossly miscast Bill Nighy) who, despite his overwhelming kindness, is becoming increasingly distant from his intolerable wife (Penelope Wilton). Douglas is certainly not a humorous character; he merely has a few sarcastically comedic moments and these are relished by the bombastic and snarky comic, but when it comes to the scores of dramatic scenes he flounders. Clearly, he has run out of uses for that immovable stupefied expression and theatrical, elongated delivery of his, after effortlessly embodying a pompous pop star in Love Actually (2003) and hiding behind a marine motion capture mask in the middle couple of Pirates of the Caribbean films, and is too egotistical to let his physical and vocal features vary in order to express emotion – otherwise known as "acting" – as he did fleetingly in films like Notes on a Scandal (2006). As the overrated diva collapses in the face of the demands Ol Parker's more than decent script, the audience if forced to picture a real actor, like Jeremy Irons, bring the part to life.
Douglas' wife intentionally makes us cringe as Wilton does what she does best and plays a sycophantic, overbearing social climber that is in this case chasing after Graham in the hope of profiting from his former position as a judge in the Supreme Court. On occasion Celia Imrie confidently trots out her similar natural talents, although her character, Madge, is not so deluded that she doesn't sympathise with the ill-matched married couple. Probably the most horrid and yet oddly the next most endearing of the women is Muriel (Maggie Smith) a stubbornly English wheelchair-bound pessimist whose outgoing xenophobia is understandable in her old age, but still makes her very unappealing to those around her byt also sharply funny to the audience.
Her eventual sentimental epiphany might be predictable, as is the ending in general, but it is completely believable. One might say the same for the way that all the romantic plot threads conveniently come together for a most cloying conclusion that's been replicated several times over, but an explosively original finale is almost impossible to manage in a film that has set out be a heart-warming, PG-rated, gentle field trip, and it could have been much worse. John Madden has never been a master of wrangling the sprawl of sub-plots in films that run on charm and adrenalin, even in his multi-award-winning Shakespeare in Love (1997). Although here he is, as usual, saved by his finely chosen acting ensemble. Smith, Dench and Wilton do very well with smoothing over the cracks in the uneven scripting, as do the lovable Dev Patel (the lead in Slumdog Millionaire) as Sonny and the rest of the widely Indian cast.
Don't expect the Indian 'Tadka' but this movie transcends new aspects of drama throughout in itself. Try not to miss.