Director: John Madden
Writers: Ol Parker (screenplay), Deborah Moggach (novel)
Stars: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith
As Americans living in a youth oriented culture, we’re haunted by a fear of old age. Fear blanks our vision, restricts us to fulfilling childhood dreams and wastes precious time. But realities are forcing a new look at the later years. The truth is that we’re living unprecedented longer healthier lives than previous generations. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is more than a feel good movie aimed at picking up our lagging spirits as we face falling off the perch. It’s a wake up call.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a colorful, funny and serious film, challenges stereotypes and stimulates the imagination. The hotel’s sign declares “For the Elderly and Beautiful”. Already a familiar image of old age is being questioned. Beautiful? And then its owner spouts a new, catchy phrase, revamping an invisible but insistent expectation of doom as we age. To hear his exuberant voice meet small and large disappointments with “Everything will be all right in the end…and if it’s not all right, then it’s not the end!” contradicts a deep American conviction about old age, especially the late years, the end of life years. I believe The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel invites us to participate in the creation of a new mythology, a coming of age vision of emergence one more time – in the late years.
Like all good fairy tales, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel begins, “Once upon a time in England, there were five characters who, beyond a certain respectable age, face dire circumstances. They couldn’t afford themselves, suffered poor health or were just worn out from the sadness of life itself.”
A wiry old fellow named, of all things, Norman Cousins – yes, the doctor who laughed himself back to health – longs for one last fling in the hay. A crotchety crone with a whiplash tongue rolls around in a wheelchair, filling her days with bitterness and monumental dissatisfaction. A husband and wife, settled into victim and persecutor roles of married annoyance with one another want only to go on, letting their daughter pay the bills. Another, a rebellious grandmother who fancies herself desirable to yet another wealthy widower ran away from her daughter who wanted to install her as permanent babysitter. And there’s the spunky narrator of the tale who, a wife all her life and now widowed, must get a job because her husband frittered away their lifesavings. The only member of this over-the-hill gang who can truly afford himself is a judge who’s harbored a shameful secret and longs to right an old wrong by returning to the place of his childhood. That would be India. All of these elderly characters set out to India from their homeland to become residents of a fantasy hotel in a fantasy land with fantasy hopes.
They get much more.
And so do we.
Embedded in each of the character’s stories is a challenge crafted to personal circumstances as only can happen when archetypes, universal patterns of human dynamics that affect us all, are in play. Loneliness affects us all in different ways but, healed by our true self being seen, leads to transformation – a fresh identity. Think beast (or beauty) in Beauty and the Beast, think Cinderella when her foot fits the shoe or think Snow White as she’s awakened from her stupor. But those fairy tale characters are all young. What’s special about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is that all its characters are old but they still change in the most astonishing ways. They come of age, to an age beyond the middle, one just being imagined into existence by the very lives they’re living where they’re awake, energetic and looking forward to the rest of their lives.
Norman who, in his own words, wants to ‘climb the mountain’ one more time, meets a woman who’s as horny as he is but finds that the lively company of a woman his own age (laced with a bit of orgasmic ecstasy) is what he longs for.
The crotchety wheelchair madam, a live-in housekeeper by trade in earlier years, has come for a new hip but gets an attitude replacement. She meets her counterpart in a young caste ‘untouchable’ woman who tends her and discovers she can’t bear to not bear her. In the end, she gets up out of her wheelchair and puts her dreadful dominating nature to good use.
The husband, against all his determination to suffer silently, delights in simple acts, slight adventures and light-hearted encounters never allowed at home. The wife indulges herself in angry tirades until even she can hear herself. Finally, they risk breaking their symbiotic attachment without a clue who or what they will be on their own.
The sexy sixty-something grandmother acts out to her heart’s content until even she begins to believe there’s plenty of fun still to be had. She has managed – somehow – to emerge from motherhood and grandmotherhood with a life of her own and a twinkle in her eye.
The loyal wife, quiet to the point of desperate consequences, gets a job that requires her to be herself, a woman who has something to say about being a housewife. She becomes a cultural spokeswoman, consulting for one of those telephone-soliciting firms with Indian speaking voices.
The judge easily reveals that he’s gay and then, not so easily, reveals a dark secret. In his young man’s odyssey to India, he’d fallen in love with but then abandoned an Indian lover who, he believed, had suffered shame for both of them and been ostracized by his family. He’s back to find him, to find the peace that’s eluded him. He does.
And now the crisis, the place in the fairy tale where fantasies come crashing down. The exuberant Pied Piper manager of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel who enticed them all to come to India with his photo-shopped brochure of a glamorous hotel where they found rejuvenation midst bad plumbing, dirty rooms and strange food, must do as his mother requires. The hotel must close. It’s a financial disaster. He must give up his independence, his beloved (stunning) girlfriend and his dream of hotelier.
But in fairy tale India – in a reality beyond the real where elders are outsourced as a valuable resource – the rescued become rescuers. It’s not money but second sight that has – without us quite noticing – ridden in, saving the day for another day.
In this land, the elderly become elders. In other words, more than revived, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel guests transform. They reach for pinnacles of triumph only available in the late years, toward the end of the story.
If it’s the end, it’s going to be all right “For the Elderly and Beautiful” because if it’s not all right, it’s not the end and then you are, just where you wanted to be, loving what you thought you were going to hate and waiting for the ending where it’s all right. Or something like that.