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MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (Three Stars)
U.K.: John Madden, 2012 (20th Century Fox)
Some countries have massive oil deposits; some have huge veins of silver or gold. England is blessed with a large, constantly replenished reservoir of prime acting talent. They’re a nation that probably has more great (and good) stage and movie actors than any other place that leaps to mind. (All that and Shakespeare too.)
A goodly number of those first-class English actors (seven) play sizable roles in the sparkling ensemble of the highly likable and engaging new British film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Expertly, poignantly and wittily, they portray seven elderly or more middle-aged Londoners who have responded to (or fallen for) the persuasive and colorful advertisements for an establishment called, also, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
This Hotel happens to be a supposedly upscale lodging place in Jaipur, India, for British retirees. And these guests are a treasure house of British theatrical and film talent: Tom Wilkinson as Graham Dashwood (a judge who grew up in India), Maggie Smith as Muriel Donnelly (a longtime housekeeper seething with prejudice), Ronald Pickup as Norman Cousins (unattached and still on the prowl), Celia Imre as Maggie Hardcastle (ditto), Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton as Douglas and Jean Ainslie (a solidly incompatible couple) and, also serving as the film‘s narrator (through her blog), Judi Dench as the warm-hearted, cast-adrift widow Evelyn Greenslade.
The movie — based by director John Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker on Deborah Moogach‘s novel, “These Foolish Things“ — is a nice little comedy-drama, intelligently made and beautifully designed and shot. But the acting is what makes it special. That glittering cast of British senior stars are a magnificent seven, and it might have been even more so. Peter O’Toole and Julie Christie were originally slotted for the roles played by Pickup and Imre (not that those two are in any way deficient), but were somehow lost along the way. (Salaries?) A pity, because O’Toole and Christie, two recent Oscar nominees, are among the dispiritingly large number of great movie actors (and great British actors) whom we don’t see often enough, thanks to the seemingly ingrained ageism of the movies. We don’t get enough of them, and many others.  It would have been a great treatdelight to watch the man who played Lawrence of Arabia and the woman who played Lara, in Exotic dalliance, in the roles intended for them here.

But, of course, we should be thankful for the seven we have, and also for their junior colleagues in the movie, including the actor, Dev Patel, who plays their much younger host, the burblingly enthusiastic and self-deceiving Sonny Kapoor. Sonny owns the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (inherited from his father), and he also manages it, has prepared the glowing advertising — and has, shall we say, exaggerated. Compared to most luxury hotels, the Exotic is a little seedy, and, thanks to Sonny, not particularly well-run — though I’ve got to admit, with its classic Satyajit-Ray-film décor, it looked great to me.

Patel’s face will be familiar; he played the contestant on Slumdog Millionaire. Perhaps he was a bit intimidated by his fellow actors here — as well he should be — because he tends to overplay a little. Not too much, but it’s noticeable when you compare him with his older British castmates – with such masters of subtlety and insight as Wilkinson and Dench, such a grande dame of stylish wit as Maggie Smith (here doing to the servant class, what she usually does to the rich), and such a wizard of the odd and offbeat as Nighy — as well as such sturdy artists of emotion or humor as Pickup, Imre and Wilton.

The seven guests are the key to the tale, and they’re the reason to watch the film. Madden and Parker devote some time to Sonny’s problems with his lovely fiancee, Suneina (Tena Desae), and with his stubborn mother (Lillete Dubey), crises that include both the travails of hotel management and of potential marrriage in a society with a tradition of arranged marriages. But mostly what we follow — and what we’re primarily interested in — are the star guests.

The most poignant turn belongs to Wilkerson as Graham, portraying, with great restraint and keen perception, a gay man at the end of his life trying to re-connect with the Indian friend who was the love of his life, whom he hasn’t seen since youth, and whom he believes he permanently wronged. The most likeable guest is Dench as Evelyn, beguilingly showing us the difficulties of  adjusting to life without the person (her late husband) who shaped and ordered her routines. The funniest is Smith. A genius of timing as always, she starts off the movie as an outspoken bigot, and undergoes that gratifying change of heart we see often enough in movies and too seldom in life.

Imre and Pickup, as Madge and Norman, show us that sex springs eternal — and Nighy and Wilton, as the incompatible Ainslies, show us that rotten marriages do as well. It’s a delight watching all of them. The direction by Madden — who gave Judi Dench one of her finest hours, and also her finest ten minutes, in Mrs. Brown and Shakespeare in Love — keeps the film’s gentler and more languorous pace humming and the comedy and drama smoothly interwoven. If there’s a problem with the film, it’s in the script, which is a bit too pat, a bit too brisk . Things happen, we feel, not because they inevitably would happen to those people in that place, but because we expect them in a story like this.

SPOILER ALERT

Arguments flare up at the right moment; problems are solved with implausible inevitability; people even die on schedule. The script, while good in some respects, lacks the sort of life (or theatrical life) that all films need and that the best actors, the brdt Brits particularly, always supply, and that they supply here.

END OF ALERT

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is still an often admirable show, and it’s especially laudable in its ambition to show us the kind of people too often marginalized in our own movies: old people, who often love movies and usually have time to watch them, yet remain a market unwisely untapped. That market is well-mined well here, by England‘s main resource, some of its glorious actors. So The Exotic Hotel is good, but it could have been better.

Oh well, Life could be better. And, come to think of it, there’s nothing wrong with a nice little comedy-drama.

One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

  1. Gill Iltis says:

    I was tempted to see this, Michael, due solely to my heritage of course! Now that I’ve read your review I’m positively eager to….. Thanks. I also have to agree with your comments re: Julie Christie and Peter O’Toole – so much talent and so little screen time. Too bad.

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MAMET
Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

INTERVIEWER
Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

MAMET
Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet

INTERVIEWER
Do you outline plays before you start to write them?

PINTER
Not at all. I don’t know what kind of characters my plays will have until they…well, until they are. Until they indicate to me what they are. I don’t conceptualize in any way. Once I’ve got the clues I follow them—that’s my job, really, to follow the clues.

INTERVIEWER
What do you mean by clues? Can you remember how one of your plays developed in your mind—or was it a line-by-line progression?

PINTER
Of course I can’t remember exactly how a given play developed in my mind. I think what happens is that I write in a very high state of excitement and frustration. I follow what I see on the paper in front of me—one sentence after another. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a dim, possible overall idea—the image that starts off doesn’t just engender what happens immediately, it engenders the possibility of an overall happening, which carries me through. I’ve got an idea of what might happen—sometimes I’m absolutely right, but on many occasions I’ve been proved wrong by what does actually happen. Sometimes I’m going along and I find myself writing “C. comes in” when I didn’t know that he was going to come in; he had to come in at that point, that’s all.
~ Harold Pinter

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