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The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: movie review

The impressive cast in 'Marigold' keeps the movie from descending into sappiness more than it may have otherwise.

By Peter Rainer/ Film critic / May 4, 2012

'Marigold' star Judi Dench (l.) works so intuitively with co-star Bill Nighy that they barely need dialogue in their scenes together.

Ishika Mohan/Fox Searchlight Films/AP

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In proud defiance of the prevailing anti-oldster trend in movies, we have "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," a film that features just about nothing but oldsters. Fortunately for everybody, they are played by a gift-pack assortment of world-class British actors, including Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Judi Dench.

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Without such a bang-up cast, "Marigold Hotel" might have descended far more often than it does into terminal sappiness. The material, based on Deborah Moggach's novel "These Foolish Things," is larded with life lessons one can see coming a mile away.

We are quickly introduced to our players. Meek Douglas (Nighy) and his snippy wife, Jean (Penelope Wilton), have lost their retirement savings in their daughter's failed Internet start-up. Old coot Norman (Ronald Pickup) is still trying to pass himself off as a 40-something on dating sites. Randy Madge (Celia Imrie) doesn't want to be a stay-at-home grandmother. Recently widowed Evelyn (Dench), faced with her late husband's catastrophic debts, doesn't want to move in with her sons.

Respected high court judge Graham (Wilkinson) is set to retire. Recently let go by her long-term employers, housekeeper Muriel (Smith) needs an expensive hip replacement operation.

In response to an ad for a "luxury development for residents in their golden years," all of these people find themselves on the same flight bound for India. The accommodations in Jaipur, of course, turn out to be anything but luxe despite the best intentions of its proprietor, Sonny (Dev Patel of "Slumdog Millionaire"), to make it seem otherwise. Sonny, who inherited the now run-down establishment from his father, has problems of his own: a gorgon of a mother (Lillete Dubey) and a modern girlfriend (Tena Desae) she strongly disapproves of.

It will come as no surprise that everybody's life issues get smoothed out, but some of the buffing and polishing is deft. Evelyn, whose blog entries, heard in voice-over, provide a running commentary, warms to the unhappily married Douglas. Nighy and Dench work so intuitively together that they don't really need dialogue – their body language does it all. Muriel, who is initially presented as a racist crone, gradually warms to India and its people. This transition is too abrupt and predictable, but Smith is so extraordinary that it doesn't matter much. We await Muriel's transformation as we might savor Scrooge's redemption at the end of "A Christmas Carol." And because Smith is playing a working-class woman for a change, she gives her character's grievances and disappointments an especially gritty texture.

Best of all is Wilkinson's performance as the magistrate who, we quickly learn, is returning after 40 years to the India he spent his privileged childhood in. Graham's return is highly purposeful: He wants to track down the man who was the love of his youth. When they were caught out, the young man's family was ostracized, and Graham was packed off to college in England.

Entranced once again by India's glorious all-consuming bustle, Graham goes about his mission with single-minded verve. But there is also a sense of loss, of leave-taking, in his pursuit. The melancholy vicissitudes of age and regret are imprinted upon him. Wilkinson accomplishes all this without the slightest trace of special pleading.

As storytellers, director John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love") and his screenwriter Ol Parker are way too schematic, and they keep far too much of the action within the crumbly confines of the hotel. India itself becomes not much more than a vibrant theatrical backdrop. "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" is an ersatz experience, a commingling of forced uplift and exotica, but it's moving anyway. Like its characters, we want to hold on to the dream that all will come out right in the end if we only check into the right address. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for sexual content and language.)

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