"Do not go gently into that good night," the poet urged us. And that goes for actors as well as anybody else.
A cast of great Brits of pensioner vintage lights up John Madden's film of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, an adorable comedy about elderly pioneers tackling life's last great adventure.
The conceit in this film of Deborah Moggach's novel is that these folks — retirees without vast savings — are the next great "outsourcing" gold mine. India is ready to replace your hips and turn an ancient hotel into a retirement home.
As for the seniors, why not spend your retirement in a country where living is exotic and cheap, where the culture is famed for its respect for the elderly?
Evelyn (Judi Dench, pitch-perfect) is a vulnerable but plucky new widow who has never worked, who lost her home to her late husband's bad debts. Muriel (Maggie Smith, flintier than ever) is an ailing racist who sniffs at a black doctor, "He can wash all he wants; that color's not coming off." Jean and Douglas (Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy) refuse the meager lifestyle at a British rest home and buy into the luxurious promises of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Madge (Celia Imrie, funny) is on the lookout for one last (and hopefully wealthy) husband. Norman (Ronald Pickup) is a randy old coot who doesn't feel like an old coot and aims to prove it to the first willing woman he can find.
And Graham (Tom Wilkinson, on the money) is a crusty judge who fears nothing so much as his own retirement party. He attends one too many of those and promptly stomps out.
They make their passage to India, to Rajasthan, where they discover that young Sonny (Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire) has overstated the virtues of his hotel "for the elderly and beautiful." The Marigold saw its best days under the Raj.
Every character must make an emotional journey as well as a physical one. The culture shock of India, a cacophony of car horns, elephants and teeming masses, the spicy foods, the rough-and-tumble nature of life and spartan living conditions will test them all. And every character will reveal a big secret.
Madden's light, frothy film is entirely too long for the subject, a smidge on the precious side, a trifle predictable and occasionally melodramatic. But it never fails to amuse, with every player in the cast having his or her share of pithy, droll and perfectly delivered lines. Jean pretentiously prattles that "obviously, one's read one's Kipling," Muriel complains that "If I can't pronounce it, I won't eat it."
Patel is engagingly enthusiastic as the overreaching and incompetent eager-beaver Sonny, who oversells the accommodations and his ability to run them. "In India, we have a saying. 'Everything will be all right in the end. And if it isn't all right, then it is not the end.'"
That's true of the movie, too. Madden (Shakespeare in Love) squeezes in a lot of the book — a forbidden romance, a family threat to the hotel, health issues. But The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel sugarcoats the poverty and scrimps on the sightseeing. Even India's obnoxious, colloquially challenged, outsourced call centers get a makeover.
But it all works out in the end, and that makes this charmer that rare movie that treats old age as more than tragic or cute, that never condescends to its characters or shortchanges its intended AARP-discount audience.