Tena Desae and Dev Patel star in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." (Ishika Mohan / Fox Searchlight )
"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"is an affectionately told comedy about a bunch of English retirees who trade a bleak British future for an elegant retirement hotel in the middle of India, one that promises to make those final years truly golden — and for a fraction of the price at home.
Sounds like a dream, or a scheme, and in truth it's a bit of both as neither life nor the "Marigold Hotel" turn out exactly as one might wish. But when the bags are packed with pride, prejudice, problems and prospects by some of Britain'sbest — including Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Maggie Smith — it makes the trip worth taking. Complementing all that aging grace is Dev Patel, the breakout star of"Slumdog Millionaire," as the irrepressible young owner of the Marigold. Aptly named Sonny, he is trying ever so hard to gloss over any rough patches — at the hotel and in his life or his guests'. It all makes for a movie whose infectious charm outweighs some of the predictability that slips in around the edges.
While the film's infrastructure may be creaky at times, not unlike the leaking faucets and crumbling rooms of the aging Marigold Hotel, its heart is solid gold. It starts with director John Madden, who is always adept at spinning a yarn; here, he has completely embraced the whimsy of screenwriter Ol Parker's adaptation of Deborah Moggach's novel "These Foolish Things," about "outsourcing" one's retirement to India. That country's Rajasthan region, where the film is set, lends its exotic temples, emerging industry and teeming humanity to provide a vibrant backdrop, and it's beautifully shot by cinematographer Ben Davis, who last worked with the director on"The Debt," which was released in the U.S. last year.
After a rough trip — airport delays and a bus ride that would have cowed more youthful mortals — the group of seven strangers turns up on the Marigold Hotel's steps. Most come from Britain's not-quite-upper-crust, and there are early snapshots of the lives they are leaving to set up things.
Evelyn (Dench), who will become the central voice of the film as she launches a blog to record her India adventure, is a recent widow who finds the husband she trusted left her with debts she never imagined. Graham (Wilkinson) is the youngest, a 50ish judge who opts for early retirement to deal with unresolved issues in India, where he lived as a boy and first fell in love. Providing most of the conflict are the long-married, ill-matched Douglas (Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton). Completing the set — the filmmakers want to make sure they have all the types covered — is the never-married Muriel (Smith), who managed someone else's household affairs and is facing a hip replacement, and the saucy singles Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup), both still hoping to score a rich mate.
One by one, each character faces life-changing, and challenging, moments, which require that they either embrace or reject the possibility of transformation. Sonny has his own trials — how to save the hotel and win the heart of his girlfriend, and obtain his mother's acceptance of both — though with the ebullient optimism that Patel lets vibrate through Sonny, it is hard to believe that things won't eventually turn out fine.
This exceptional ensemble makes aging in exotic climes feel effortlessly real, never over-reaching, appropriately fraught. Dench in particular paints a moving portrait of Evelyn as she navigates the empowerment of landing her first job — helping train those ubiquitous Indian telemarketers — and her sometimes paralyzing fear that she might not be up to the task. Madden brings just the right light touch, much as he did in the royal treat of "Shakespeare in Love," which won seven Oscars, including best picture, in 1999.
The message of "Marigold" is ultimately one of hope, that it's never too late to find yourself, and possibly your soul mate — that there is time to rewrite the final chapters of your life. All that uplift amid the rubble could turn saccharine, but it rarely does. Instead, "Marigold" makes you believe that despite the ups and downs, the aches and pains, sometimes life can indeed get better with age.