Dame Judi Dench, as that imperious name suggests, is who you call upon to glower on screen, to peer down from her perch at mere mortals. She scowled magnificently as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love and terrified all of England, and as M in the latter-day Bond movies, she was less the empress of espionage than a tart school marm. Even double-oh-seven cowered before her, as if anticipating banishment to a corner of the classroom.
But a softer side emerges in an early scene in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, when a throaty gurgle erupts from her in response to an unexpected comment. She laughs so warmly and open-heartedly that the screen fills up with unrepressed joy — lesser actors should be taking notes. Tom Wilkinson, on the other hand, delivers a master class on how to cry — not with quivering emotion and exhibitionistic tears, but with the gentle relief of unburdening oneself of a decades-long secret. Both moments — Dench's happiness, Wilkinson's sorrow — are fleet, and yet, these veterans make each second count.
Late in the film, Muriel (Maggie Smith) appraises the lonely, husband-hunting Madge (Celia Imrie) and tells her not to worry, because she's a thoroughbred. She could be speaking of all the seniors in the cast. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, set in Jaipur, is nothing if not a demonstration of how thoroughbreds can vault effortlessly over a procession of clichés and trot past the finish line undiminished.
The premise is anything but subtle: Love Actually for the superannuated set. A “group of self-deluding old fossils” from England are deposited, for various reasons, at the titular flophouse, deluded by Photoshopped pictures that promised great luxury. Besides Muriel and Madge, there's the newly widowed Evelyn (Dench), the Ainslies (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton), the just-retired judge Graham (Wilkinson), and the ageless skirt chaser Norman (Ronald Pickup). Away from home, lessons will be learnt, lovers united, old hurts healed, new lives forged — it's India as soothing balm for frayed British nerves.
John Madden, the director, begins the film with ‘Strangers in the night' tinkling in the background, and soon enough, these strangers are exchanging glances during a long night at the airport. And once they land in their former colony, they encounter camels, elephants, food poisoning, squalor, colour (beginning with the gauzy pink-orange sunset their plane lowers itself into), call centres, domineering mothers, arranged marriages, malfunctioning plumbing, and, perhaps most perplexing of all, idiomatic Indian English. (The manager of the hotel, played by Dev Patel, cheerfully informs them, “Long in tooth you have become.”)
But the trite, soap-operatic machinations of plot are trumped by that great ensemble of English thespians. How do they do it every time, imbuing the creakiest of lines and scenarios with such wit and wisdom? Not every storyline works (and the portions with the Indians are the weakest), but there's enough to keep us invested in the redemption of these lost souls. Nighy explodes with long-suppressed frustrations, Wilton coolly assesses their foundering marriage, Wilkinson plays cricket with urchins on the street — it's superlative acting as soothing balm for frayed audience nerves.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Director: John Madden
Cast: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith
Storyline: Brits vacationing in India discover the country and themselves.
Bottomline: Great performances lift a tale of clichés