Sunday, June 24, 2012

"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" Review

In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, a group of British seniors, for a variety of reasons, “outsource” their retirement to India.  Despite the simplicity and predictability of the plot, the film works because of the outstanding cast of seasoned British actors, which includes, among others, Judi Dench, and Tom Wilkinson. Fans of Downton Abbey will enjoy Maggie Smith’s performance as Muriel, the bigoted old bag, and Penelope Wilton's
portrayal of an unlikeable, and excessively negative, domineering wife. 

The characters are strangers to one another until they meet en route to Jaipur.  They are the first group of guests at the hotel, whose proprietor, Sonny (Dev Patel of Slum Dog Millionaire fame), has misrepresented its grandeur in promotional material.  Sonny’s idea is to restore the property and “outsource aging” because people in the west dislike the elderly.  There is a pointed comment about contemporary western attitudes towards the elderly in Sonny’s dream of creating a “home for the elderly, so wonderful that they will simply refuse to die.”

This charming movie deals in a lighthearted way with the challenges of aging as it explores issues such as health, loss and loneliness, independence, and financial constraints. As the characters attempt to reconcile the changes that come with aging, the audience is treated to some relevant insights about life.

The young, optimistic Sonny lives by the mantra, “Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, it is not yet the end.”  Even though he describes his life at one point as a series of “catastrophes”, he is unshakeable in his conviction that things eventually work towards the good.  Sonny embodies the virtue of hope.

Smith’s character, Muriel, has gone to India for a free, fast tracked hip replacement as part of a pilot program. At her age, she could die during the 6-month waiting period at home. She sarcastically tells the doctor, “I don’t even buy green bananas!”  Her hilarious delivery packs an important “carpe diem” punch.

The poignancy of Muriel’s situation is revealed as the film progresses. She is a single woman who dedicated her life to serving one family. As she aged, the family replaced her with someone younger. Muriel struggles with feelings of rejection and uselessness, but she is not ready to give up living.  Perhaps more than any other character in the film, she transforms her situation by first transforming her inner self, and then goes to work transforming the hotel into the place of Sonny's dream.

In order to supplement her meager income, Evelyn (Dench) finds a job at a call center as a cultural adviser. Confused about technology at the beginning of the film, she blogs about her experiences in India on the “interweb”.  She posts, “The only real failure is the failure to try, and success is measured by how we cope with disappointment.” Evelyn, who  blissfully relied on her husband, now deceased, is confronted with a series of disappointing realizations. Circumstances pushed her out the door of her comfortable life. Her post is an encouraging shove to anyone who finds it difficult to wander out of their established comfort zone.

While Evelyn who holds the movie together, Graham (Tom Wilkinson) emerges as the most sympathetic character.  Unlike the other characters, we have to wait to discover Graham’s reason for retiring to India.  Graham is in search of reconciliation and healing. He is haunted by an incident from his past, and has spent a lifetime living with regret and guilt.  Graham is finally able to forgive himself when he confronts the past and discovers that the consequences of the incident were much graver in his imagination than in real life.  Graham’s story speaks to the difficult reality of healing painful memories, and learning to forgive one’s self for the perceived or actual wrongs one has done.

As the film nears its happy conclusion, Evelyn comments, “Nothing here has worked out quite as I expected.” Muriel sagely replies, “Most things don’t, but sometimes what happens instead is the good stuff.” Life is mystery. We know the characters in our own story, but the plot of our life frequently unfolds in ways we could never imagine.

At its core, this film is about people transforming their situations, and positively affecting the lives of others. The movie is refreshing in its ability to communicate its messages in a gentle and often humorous fashion. While I didn’t agree with the choices that some of the other characters made en route to transformation, I left the theater with a smile on my face and in my heart.

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