The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (dir. John Madden, cert. 12A), set in India, taps into a rich vein of British humour, its ageing characters played to perfection by its ageing stars. For the younger audience there’s a Bollywood subplot of blighted romance, complete with jealous brother and disapproving mother, so there’s something for everyone.
Some jokes are as old as the cast, like the risk for an old man having sex with a younger woman (“If she dies, she dies”), but this adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s 2004 novel These Foolish Things has plenty of originality. It starts with the premise of a group of English pensioners electing to spend their declining years at a luxury hotel “for the elderly and beautiful” in Jaipur, following personal loss or financial disasters that leave them unable to afford a nice retirement village in the UK.
That’s not true of high court judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson), who lived in India 40 years ago and had a brief fling with a young Indian man, and now wants to retrace his steps, or of Muriel (Maggie Smith) who needs a new hip. Her wish to avoid a waiting list induces her to opt for health tourism and a quick and cheap hip replacement.
This means putting aside her astonishing racism (“people with brown skins and black hearts” she mutters to a paramedic who happens to be married to a woman from Mumbai). In a nice twist after Downtown Abbey, Dame Maggie’s character here is from the downstairs side of the tracks.
The Ainsleys, Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton) had money invested in their daughter’s internet business (big mistake). Jean’s antipathy to India is reinforced when she’s attracted to Graham (big mistake) and while Douglas is out exploring the city she spends most days in the hotel, just lounging around (and reading one of Deborah Moggach’s other novels).
Madge (Celia Imre) and Norman (Ronald Pickup) are each looking for a bit of late romance. Madge even joins a select private club in the hope of finding a rich single man, while Norman is keen to demonstrate that “he’s still got it in him”, whatever it was.
Evelyn (Judi Dench) has lost her husband and with him has lost the need not to make decisions, for his debts mean their home has to be sold. Parts of the story are her narration, in a style that could be almost Victorian guide book as she likens India to a wave that if you resist will knock you over but if you dive in will carry you with it.
They’ve all been tempted to the hotel by manager Sonny (Dev Patel) whose vision for making his dead father’s decrepit hotel pay is to attract decrepit guests from the UK. Let’s just say the hotel is not quite ready when they arrive, and his attention to detail is distracted by his pursuit of the lovely Sunaina (Tena Desae) who works in a call centre (so is obviously a graduate).
Evelyn even gets a job in the call centre, though at the start we see her in one of those awful cycles of remote banking, needing to change the account but needing the consent of the account holder, who of course is dead. Muriel meanwhile shows kindness to the Dalit servant, and rises above the marital tensions of the Ainsleys and the loneliness of other guests and starts to influence events.
The actors suffered for their art with most of the cast having stomach upsets, neatly reflected in a scene of closing bathroom doors. A lot of the action is in the hotel, but the light and colour and the smiles of India are a constant background to the film, and who knows, the idea might catch on.
After Carmen in 3D, the Royal Opera House brings us Madam Butterfly in 3D, filmed at a live performance (complete with rustles and coughs). The formula worked very well with Carmen, with a lot going on and the cameras in the thick of it, but this seems quite static.
Despite the opera’s popularity, it’s a bit short of action, and perhaps over-reliant on a few good tunes including snatches of The Star Spangled Banner. A lot thus rests on the singers.
James Valenti as Pinkerton and Anthony Michaels-Moore as the American Consul Sharpless do their bits well, but Liping Zhang’s performance as Cio-Cio-San is stunning, showing emotions of love and loss portrayed in a close-up view you could not get even from the best seats.
Pinkerton’s belated remorse at the harm he’s done, coupled with the inability of Sharpless to bridge a cultural divide, leave the opera very much a creature of its time. Anti-American, anti-imperial it may be, but its basic love ’em and leave ’em premise is fairly universal (as Miss Saigon has proved).
The closing scenes are the most impressive, as Cio-Cio puts the American flag in her young son’s hand and a dagger in her own. It may not be obvious in the stage version, but as she flails her arms and falls, her sleeves capture the fluttering of a butterfly.