A young Indian entrepreneur, Sonny (Dev Patel), has a brilliant idea: to open a hotel that caters for the ‘elderly and beautiful’ British tourist. He plans, in other words, to exploit that pot at the end of the service industry rainbow, the ‘grey pound’. Sonny fakes some photographs depicting what he hopes his hotel will look like (one day in the future when the building works are done) and prints a brochure that hoodwinks seven gullible pensioners, each in a state of mental and/or physical disrepair, into booking their one-way ticket to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
They arrive — following a journey in which they discover that India is both hot and crowded — to find the hotel of their dreams meeting the health and safety standards of their nightmares. However, since this is not the latest confidence trick to make the front pages of the Daily Mail but the beginning of a romantic comedy, it’s not long before the redoubtable seven begin to fall for the charms of India and the funny little ways of their hosts. Soon they are forgetting their fuddy-duddy English habits and trying on colourful scarves, tasting spicy foods and even screaming when their tuk-tuk takes a sharp corner.
Each of these seven characters has a history to divulge and a reason to travel: Douglas and Jean invested their pension in their daughter and her internet start-up; Graham is searching for a person he loved and lost, 40 years ago; Evelyn has been left widowed and crippled by debt; Muriel needs a hip operation (that she can have, courtesy of a pioneer scheme, the moment her flight lands in India); Madge wants to snap up another husband before she turns up her toes, and Norman wants to get his rocks off one last time.
The film sets about making the point that old age needn’t mean the final curtain but rather the beginning of a glorious, golden chapter. Each character has wishes and desires for a future, and each has been a victim of the prejudice that the elderly confront, on a daily basis, at home in the UK: at best patronised and accommodated, and at worst ignored and dismissed.
Eh? What’s that you say? Elderly? But — hang on a second while I screw my eyeglass in — isn’t that Bill Nighy? That snake-hipped jazz hound is more golden ticket than grey pound from where I’m sitting. And — unless my hearing aid is playing up again — aren’t those the dulcet tones of Penelope Wilton? At 64 she’s two years younger than Britain’s sexiest sexpot, Helen Mirren. And that’s not all: only a fool would patronise Judi Dench or Maggie Smith — take a liberty with either of those Dames and you risk feeling the sharp end of one of their Oscars. As for Tom Wilkinson, well: I’ve been trying to ignore him, believe me I have, but given that he’s made 15 films in the three years since he turned 60 it’s proved pretty much impossible.
My point, in case you’re wondering, is that this film is both made and broken by its casting: it is only watchable because of the greatness of the actors, but the greatness of the actors makes the film impossible to believe. The only person who looks advanced in years is Maggie Smith and that’s because she’s hobbled by a dodgy hip. The moment she casts off her wheelchair — rising to her feet with sparking eyes and majestic deportment — she takes over the whole show.
It’s not the characters of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel who are interesting, it’s the actors playing their parts. It’s not the hotel that is appealing, but the glorious location. Story and script are entirely predictable: someone has been tipped the Black Spot; someone else will fall in love; one will be driven potty by ‘this frightful country’ but another will use the time-honoured words, ‘riot of noise and colour’ and ‘assault on the senses’.
The film sets out to torpedo the stereotype that the elderly have nothing to contribute and it achieves its aim: the audience is left in no doubt that the actors cast in the movie still have a great deal to give as long as they are handed decent scripts and substantial characters. It’s never too late, we are told by this gang of overachievers, to embrace a new role — and in particular one that might chalk up another nomination.
So it’s disappointing, this film, but not intolerable. Not quite. It’s like a bath that’s not hot enough but not so cold that you have to get out. What is irritating, however, is its ending: a film in which an English nanny rides to the rescue of a foolish, dreaming Indian boy and takes him in hand? It sounds like an adaptation of a Victorian children’s book. So much for busting stereotypes.