Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: John Madden Directs Judi Dench and Maggie Smith

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is such an anomaly in today’s youth-oriented, spectacle-driven industry that you have to applaud the courage and conviction of the filmmakers, director John Madden, and his glorious, largely British cast.

As India’s response to Britain’s richest and most elegant retirees, it’s a place where men and women of a certain age can spend their golden years surrounded by round the clock services and lush amenities–at least that’s what the alluring photo in the brochure promises.

But things turn out differently, with some dramatic changes, when seven retirees arrive in the resort, and realize that it is far from being ready. As a result of the turmoil, all kinds of coalitions and transformations occur.

The tale unfolds as both a personal and social odyssey, an adventure that contains comic, serious, and even romantic elements, and is full of unanticipated experiences and some unexpected pleasures.

However, above all, the movie serves as a showcase for some of Britain’s most honored and accomplished actors, including Oscar winners Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, Oscar-nominee Tom Wilkinson, the incomparable Bill Nighy, and other thespians (some from India).

This is the third and most successful screen teaming of Dench and Smith, who have previously appeared in Zefirelli’s soap opera, “Tea with Mussolini.” Dench plays the bereaved and financially stranded widow, Evelyn, who arrives in sunny Jaipur hoping to begin a new life. In contrast, Smith plays Muriel, a femme who needs to have her hip replaced and plans to leave India for good right after the operation. Guess what?

Joining them are the gay, disillusioned High Court Judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson), the endlessly arguing couple, Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton), and the love seekers Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Madge (Celia Imrie).

My description of the characters makes them seem cliché, or stereotypes, but they are not. What brings the disparate member closer together, sort of group members, is the effort of Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel, the youngster of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame), the hotel’s ambitiously naïve young owner, who inherited the once sophisticated place from his dad and now hopes to turn it into a luxury hotel. His goal is not as easy as he thinks, and we quickly learn that Sonny substitutes his lack of resources and knowledge with sheer energy and enthusiasm.

At first, the new residents are disappointed by the “improvements” done to the property, which jeopardize such basic amenities as water, electricity, and telephone. Then there is the expected culture clash, the disorientation caused by India’s rich traditions and contrasts, which younger people might perceive as intoxicating rather than frightening, more beautiful than strange. But not these members.

Initially, the seven “brave souls” are uncertain about their future, at least in the short run. However, gradually, they forge new friendships, and make unexpected discoveries about themselves and others, which help them let go of their stifling past.

The script, by Ol Parker, based on Deborah Moggach’s novel “These Foolish Things,” is uneven in dramatic interest, and some of the subplots don’t work, but it contains sufficient sharp observations and some witty lines to make the experience worthy of our attention.

As he has shown in other pictures (“Proof”), John Madden is a middle-brow literary filmmaker who loves actors, characters, and words, but he lacks strong visual style or a good sense of tempo. Here, he shows an extreme and commendable respect for his triumphant cast, allowing each member to have his or her moment by seeking out their place in the larger space–and what a space India is in terms of landscapes, colors, foods, and smells!

Though very different actresses in style and delivery, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith share the same biological age (late 70s), and more importantly a healthy, tenacious attitude toward age and aging. Both proudly display their wrinkled faces and lived-in bodies, which appear to have defied any unnatural (read: plastic surgery) interference. It’s as if they are telling the viewers: That’s how women of our age look. Take it or leave it. I took it.

The film’s commercial success led to a sequel, which is inferior.