The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a comedy in which a group of aging Britons decide—or are compelled by financial and health problems—to spend their golden years in India, opens by cleverly showing the many ways India has already become a part of everyday life in the U.K. One character gets computer help from a company that’s outsourced technical assistance abroad. Others eat curry for dinner with the same regularity their parents would have eaten beef stew. And everyone rubs elbows with those who were either born in India or are only one generation removed from what was once the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. But, as each discovers, living in a Britain that’s become more than a little bit Indian isn’t the same as living in India itself.
The country breaks it to them gently, however. In fact, just about everything in the film by Shakespeare In Love director John Madden happens gently. Adapted from the Ol Parker novel These Foolish Things, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel sets its characters on well-trod, clearly signposted paths toward late-in-life happy endings. It’s familiar in the extreme, but manages some sleepytime pleasures in the process, thanks largely to an overqualified cast. That includes Judi Dench as a recent widow who, left alone after a lifetime of being cared for, doesn’t quite know what to do with herself. (The film would be better off if she didn’t start the blog that gives The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel its overexplaining narration, but at least it makes her happy.) Those accompanying her include Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton, a couple whose drained retirement savings puts added stress on an already-fraught relationship, and Maggie Smith, a hard-bitten racist who travels to India only because it offers her best shot at cheap, timely hip surgery.
Smith’s character points to both the film’s core problems and the elements that largely redeem it. She says vile things, and her stern eyes never suggest the actress winking behind the performance. She’s completely unrepentant about her views—until she’s not. Forced to live amidst Indians, she has a brisk, thorough change of heart that’s just saved from cliché by deft acting, particularly in a monologue in which she finds common ground with a servant who’s been waiting on her. Otherwise, the best moments belong to Tom Wilkinson, who plays a retired government minister traveling back to his childhood home to search for the boyfriend of his youth, a relationship that ended in shame for both of them when they were discovered in bed together. It’s one of the more compelling plots until it fizzles out in predictable, writerly contrivance that shows how little interest the film has in a human connection between the two men.
In fact, India as a whole—gorgeously photographed as it is—seems on hand mostly to lead its characters toward personal revelations, which is awfully generous of the country. Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel gives a broadly comic performance as the owner of the titular, faded hotel that serves as their home away from home, and there are some nods toward the way Indian traditions have been forced to adapt to the 21st century. But mostly The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel stays focused on the cutesy, low-stakes personal journeys of its English characters, characters it would be hard to care about if they weren’t brought to life by actors who give the film substance and gravity it doesn’t otherwise know how to earn.