My film reviewing has slipped a bit recently, and after my Melbourne Queer Film Festival overdose in March, I’m still catching up on recent releases. Last week I finally saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
I’d seen the trailer, and that pretty much told me everything I needed to know: a strong British cast, including Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, that woman from Downton Abbey(Penelope Wilton, otherwise known as Harriet Jones, Prime Minister – we know who you are), that other woman’s who’s not Imelda Staunton (Celia Imrie) and Maggie Smith (naturally) playing a group of older people who all decide to live out their twilight years in an unlikely hotel in India. There’ll be awakenings, enlightenment and endings, all presented in a safe and comforting tone peppered with pithy one-liners and lashings of stiff upper lip sensibility.
And that’s exactly what you get. Not a bad thing, but there’s a certain contrived and formulaic approach here as well – the nature of the beast really. It’s territory that director John Madden has traversed before – with good and bad results. Mrs Brown (1997) and Shakespeare in Love (1998) are two of his better films; Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001) not so successful. But here he does get reliably solid performances from stalwarts like Dench and Smith; immediately making the film worth seeing.
But I couldn’t help thinking that pushing a boundary or two wouldn’t have hurt, beyond putting these archetypal British characters in a chaotic and completely foreign environment where some will thrive and some will not. Maybe the fact that Wilkinson playing a gay man entering his retirement was enough of a nudge of the boundaries, but even that felt tokenistic.
What was more telling though was the audience at the screening we attended. It was at the Rivoli, so there’s always that ‘respectable’ Camberwell presence, but for this film, most of the audience were the same age, and in the same situation, as the characters – there was quite a lot of laughter as people recognised familiar scenarios and even conversations from their own lives played out on the silver screen.
And that’s where the comfort factor comes into play again. These people weren’t seeing the film to be challenged, or even educated. They were there to be entertained and engaged, and on that level, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel succeeds. And that was enough.