I’ve long had an interest, bording on the obsessive, with learning foreign languages, dating back to early childhood. I find the way they work fascinating, since we’re all expressing the same concepts and images and yet do so in sometimes inscrutably different ways. One such way is through idioms, like my favorite Spanish expression, “canta otro gallo,” which is the equivalent of the English expression “that’s another story” but literally translates to “another rooster crows.” It’s far more colorful and brings a concrete image to mind that even made it hard for me as a non-native speaker to remember.
The Spanish language also has a wonderful phrase for what we call old age or might euphemistically refer to as one’s “golden years” – la tercera edad, meaning “the third age,” after childhood and one’s working adult life. The idiom seems better to reflect the expectation today that people in developed countries will outlive their working years by a decade or more, and must, therefore, plan accordingly lest they outlive their money as well. The idea of a third age confers hope and promise on a period that automatically conjures fears of mortality, indigence, ill health, and loneliness. They are years to be lived, actively, not to be dreaded or avoided.
For the seven characters who populate the film and the building The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, this third age begins with subtle hopes for a fresh start in India, away from varying disasters they’ve left behind in England. The retirees find, of course, that the hotel is nowhere near what it promised to be, but once there, ostensibly without funds to return home, most of the guests choose to make what they can of the situation, developing new relationships while adapting to their shared fates.
The setup is brief, as it should be, as the magic only truly begins when the performers are thrown together in non-air-conditioned methods of transportation on the subcontinent. The various characters are retirees who have moved to India to stretch their retirement funds further, or get a hip replacement faster than would be possible in England, or to avoid an ignominious decline into grandma/babysitter territory. Once there, they encounter a comedy of errors in the titular hotel, in which the phones don’t work and most guest rooms have doors. The hotel is run by the perpetually optimistic and fast-talking young Sonny, who is desperate to make his plan to “outsource” old age work both as a vocation (so he can marry his very pretty girlfriend Sonaina) and as a purpose in life, but who has the business acumen of a sea cucumber. (As opposed to anemones, who are surprisingly good at identifying core competencies.) Most of the Indian characters involved here are thinly drawn and exist primarily for the Englishmen and -women to play off, although given who’s playing those roles, I find it hard to argue with this approach.
The movie boasts the greatest cast of any movie released in 2012, with two Oscar winners in Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (twice); a Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee in Tom Wilkinson; another Golden Globe winner in Bill Nighy (who excelled as the editor-in-chief in State of Play); and Penelope Wilton, winner of several major awards for British theatre and now better known here as the do-gooder Isobel Crawley, with all four performers honored as Officers of the British Empire or higher. Unsurprisingly, Smith and Dench steal most of their scenes, with Smith dropping a few Lady Violet looks on the locals and Dench often sounding like the Queen of England (and occasionally like the voice from Spaceship Earth). Celia Imrie is a bit one-note as the cougar of the group, although she gets in her share of one-liners, while Ronald Pickup is the amiable past-prime Casanova who gets the best introduction to the audience and plays it to the hilt. It’s a loaded group, given a witty and clever script, yet there’s an underlying seriousness to the performances (rooted in their characters) that elevates the film to the status of award consideration.
You can’t make a film about seven old people without something going awry, and a few things do, perhaps fewer than expected – but the film is a hopeful comedy at heart, so we can give the writers a bit more leeway. It’s the interactions between the characters that make the film sing, and within those it’s the interactions between the actors themselves – Nighy and Dench, Nighy and Wilton, Dench and Wilkinson, Smith and pretty much anybody – that are so striking. You want to see Justin Verlander face Mike Trout, but you hope it doesn’t end with an intentional walk or a hit batsman; you want to see a ten-pitch at bat where each player is at his best, regardless of the final outcome. Best Exotic Marigold Hotel boasts a dozen or more such at bats and some of them are epic. Dench earned a Golden Globe nomination, with Smith nominated in the same category for her role in Quartet; the film was shut out at the Oscars, but I could have seen a case for either actress or for Nighy, whose role is central to the film and who must play the exasperated husband clutching at a straw of happiness while his raincloud of a shrewish wife stews in the next room. He and Dench share two of the film’s most memorable scenes, and while their relationship on-screen grows almost glacially (he is, after all, a married man), there’s a remarkable chemistry between them that derives almost entirely from outside of the film – that these are two performers so effortlessly comfortable in their roles and with each other that they can convey the interest in each other on screen with barely any words or action to depict it.
The film doesn’t pander to the viewers with a giant, rousing finish, rewarding us and some of its characters with small victories rather than large ones, all under the general theme that the third age is one to be enjoyed and appreciated. The one character most determined to throw these years away will undoubtedly succeed in doing so, while those who choose to maximize their experiences – even just exploring their new hometown of Jaipur and seeing its tourist attractions or shopping in its central market – will be all the happier for doing so. You could really extend the same lesson to the first and second ages as well.