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Ian Jack

At the Cinema

An Oscar-winning director tackles the new India. So why did he use a tired old lens?

Ian Jack | March/April 2012

I wanted to see a film that was warm-hearted. Having watched a small procession of them that were cold as ice—Steve McQueen’s “Shame” was the last one—I wanted a film that opened a door in the blizzard and showed me a glowing hearth, a big smile and a mug of cocoa before bedtime. Really what I wanted, as I realise now, was “The Artist”. “The Artist” is delightful. It inspires an audience’s love. But somehow or other I missed it when it was screened at the festivals, so instead I went to see “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, which is directed by John Madden and flaunts several of Britain’s finest actors, or at least those of pensionable age. Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith: a heart-warming ensemble if ever there was one, even if Bill Nighy can never be shaken from his trademark habit of looking as though he’s left himself somewhere else. (“Have you seen me? I’m sure I was here a minute ago. Yeah?”)

Nor was the cast the only promising thing. This is a film about old people getting older, and though there’s a small genre of such films, recently joined by “The Iron Lady”, the theme is still rare enough to mark them out as brave in a cinematic culture that thinks of 18-year-olds as middle-aged. To talk of target audiences is too confining, as though only mad old men could appreciate “King Lear”, but as I’m younger than Ronald Pickup and not quite as young as Tom Wilkinson, it did seem that if “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” had a demographic I might fit it rather neatly. Also, most of the film is set in India, a country where I’ve often worked and which I once imagined as a permanent home, a place to live and die in. Some of the English characters in Madden’s film imagine the same, as retirees who are “outsourcing” themselves to cheaper accommodation and more reliable sunshine. “Just like the coast of Florida?” asks Nighy’s golfing partner in England. Yeah, says Nighy languidly, “but with more elephants.”

My predisposition towards the film hadn’t faltered at this stage; its best moments, of which that line about elephants sadly turns out to be one, come in England, before our elderly bunch meet on the flight to their new home in Jaipur. There’s a randy spinster (Imrie), a randy bachelor (Pickup), a stale and unhappy couple (Nighy and Wilton), a retired High Court judge (Wilkinson), a sweet-tempered widow (Dame Judi) and a Cockney former nanny (Dame Maggie). The High Court judge is gay and the Cockney nanny’s a racist. The others are middle-class in a straighter and more traditional sense. What they are heading for is various epiphanies and salvations, brought about partly by their contact with each other but mainly by the new civilisation they find themselves in. Rarely has India looked prettier, kinder or better-intentioned, though in the character of the energetic and excitable young hotel-keeper (Dev Patel, the hero of “Slumdog Millionaire”) it also never forgets the need to be comic.

You might say that this is the new India seen through a tired old lens. The call centres are there, the new money and the new confidence; but so also are those oriental standbys, charm, mystery and wisdom. Judi Dench sets about trying to understand the country with the same ardour as E.M. Forster’s Mrs Moore, whose need to discover “the real India” ended in so much failure and racial misunderstanding. But as what’s known as a comedy-drama, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” doesn’t go in for that kind of lesson. Dame Judi’s widow finds love and Dame Maggie has her racism cured, and the message rings out that it’s never too late—that our lives can be transformed for the better right up to our final moments. It has, as expected, some good performances; my own favourite was Penelope Wilton’s as the unhappy wife who can’t wait to get back to England. She stood out as the only character who doesn’t ask to be liked in a film that looks up at you with big doggy eyes. In its tone and photography, it could easily be mistaken for a rather expensive commercial for Saga Holidays. Jaipur, in its faded pinks and ochres, is beautifully lit.

Can anything useful be learned from this disappointment? Perhaps only that David Cameron should button his lip and leave off talk of “backing winners” in the British film industry. On paper, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” must have looked as near to a guaranteed hit as a British film can be. Madden, Smith and Dench share a clutch of Oscars—Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love” won Best Picture in 1999—and they and the rest of the cast have piles of baftas, Emmys, Tonys and Larrys to their names. India is fashionable. An older generation of cinema-goers has grey pounds to spend. What could possibly go wrong? 

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel opens in Britain on February 24th, across most of Europe in March and in America on May 4th

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