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By Alex Lynchehaun
“That is no country for old men”, runs Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium. Musing on the emptiness of old age, Yeats gives an autobiographical depiction of an elderly man taking leave of his home country and embarking on a maritime journey to the exotic lands of Constantinople through the medium of metaphor. “An aged man is but a paltry thing”, laments the poem, as the unfortunate pensioner drags his feet into the “artifice of eternity”. It’s all a little depressing.
Fear not, however, as John Madden, director of Shakespeare in Love, is here to provide the antidote to your melancholy. In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, he and screenwriter Ol Parker swap Yeats’ sailing boat for a Boeing 737 and throw up an inverted coming-of-age story which sees a collection of disengaged senior citizens jetting off to Jaipur, India, in search of their place in the world. The film, an adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s These Foolish Things, sees the likes of Bill Nighy and Ronald Pickup attempting to raise a laugh in the face of such grizzly topics as societal neglect and death, and what’s more, largely succeeding.
Nighy and Pickup are not the only stars to light up the cast list. The film is littered with so many national treasures I half expected a David Attenborough narration. Dame Judi Dench stands out markedly as Evelyn, a stoic yet personable widow faced with large debts after the death of her late husband. She finds solace in Nighy’s Douglas, who himself is in a tight spot given his 39 year marriage to the somewhat less personable Jean, played by Penelope Wilton.
Tom Wilkinson provides some much needed depth of feeling, and stands out for his perceptive performance as Graham, a retired High Court judge. Celia Imrie is another frustrated 60-something, though she is given little room for manoeuvre within the script, a problem she shares with Dame Maggie Smith as Muriel who somehow undergoes the transition from racist bigot to sweet old lady, a character arc that takes place largely off-camera.
Dev Patel is typically likeable as the idealistic young entrepreneur Sonny, responsible for attracting the group to India through his attempt to “outsource the elderly” using his late father’s crumbling hotel as a retirement home. With youthful exuberance, he battles against his authoritarian mother’s insistence on arranged marriage. This subplot is a little tired and typifies the didactic approach of the script, which maintains a rather external view of India; focusing on its arranged marriages, as well as its ‘colour’ and ‘life’, but never attempting to move beyond such classical definitions.
This is not the main issue with the script, however. The 124 minute running time is so crammed with back-stories and character developments that only one or two become believable enough to care about. The film is kept afloat by the wry witticisms of Nighy and his comic counterparts, who utilise the funny side of the script to its optimum potential.
Overall then, John Madden has produced an enjoyable and feel-good take on a difficult topic that remains charming despite suffering from a distinct lack of a third dimension; more Last of the Summer Wine than Harold and Maude.