The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel provides a mini-fix for Downton Abbey addicts twitching over the fact that their beloved series won’t be back on PBS until next year (PBS is probably lamenting this too, Downton being its highest-rated show since, well, forever.) The film, about a group of British citizens who retire to India, stars two of Downton’s cast members, and one of them is unlikely but undeniable pop culture touchstone Maggie Smith, who not only threw down with Voldemort in the final Harry Potter saga but also launched websites, memes and mashups as the eminently quotable Dowager Countess of Downton. Who needs retirement when you get roles like that?
Smith’s Marigold Hotel co-stars are equally impressive. Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, fellow Downtonian Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup play the other retirees seeking an affordable yet genteel place to enjoy their golden years; the appealing Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) is the eager but somewhat clueless young entrepreneur Sonny, who has inherited his dead father’s hotel and wants to “outsource” aging to India. His brochures lure the Brits with promises his crumbling hotel can’t keep, and cultural mishaps and misunderstandings swiftly pile up among his guests, except for Graham (Wilkinson), a retired judge who spent part of his youth in India and has personal reasons for wanting to return.
Everybody else, however, struggles in this brave new world. A widow (Dench) must find a job to make ends meet. A couple (Nighy and Wilton) discovers their responses to the new environment are entirely at odds (he’s intrigued by the differences; she is horrified). An embittered racist (Smith) must overcome her fear of foreign hospitals and doctors before she has surgery, and two lonely souls (Imrie and Pickup) wonder if they can find love at this stage of their lives, though not necessarily with each other. Even young Sonny has problems: His mother wants to sell the hotel and, because she doesn’t much like his girlfriend (Tena Desae), arrange his marriage to a more suitable prospect.
There are predictable jokes about the uneasy alliance between Indian food and British digestive systems (although they’re more tasteful than you’d think), and some of the film’s storylines are resolved a bit too conveniently. One in particular feels uncomfortably pat. But director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) has captured something lovely here, too, not only in his terrific cast but in the sights and sounds and colors of India (the movie was filmed in Udaipur in Rajasthan). The script, adapted by Ol Parker from Deborah Moggach’s novel, is funny and often touching even when issues work out a bit neatly. The movie’s charms lie in its frank and amusing assessment of age — the limits often reside solely in your head — and in its heartening message that life isn’t over just because you’ve hit 65. As for the Marigold Hotel, well, it’s not the Delano. But overall it’s a fine spot to spend a couple of hours.
Cast: Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Tena Desae.
Director: John Madden.
Screenwriter: Ol Parker. Based on the novel by Deborah Moggach.
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin.
A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 123 minutes. Sexual content, language. Opens Friday May 11 in Miami-Dade: Aventura, Sunset, South Beach; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Palace, Shadowood.