John Madden’s comedy-drama focuses almost exclusively on the elderly, and yet, as a 24-year-old, I found myself empathising. That is, before the film’s trite message – that you’re never too old to take a risk – tramples over everything else. Yes it’s nice, but who likes nice, really?
A group of ageing Brits travel to India, each for their own reasons. Their destination is the seemingly luxurious Marigold Hotel, designed and primed for the elderly. Or so they thought. It soon becomes clear that the brochure was heavily ‘photoshopped’. Nevertheless, they begin to warm to the charm of the decrepit building and its overly enthusiastic manager (played by Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire).
With the lack of Radio 4, no access to telephones, and a Hobnob deficit, the trip brings out (mostly) the best in the residents. The main thing they have in common is loneliness: a couple out of love, a widow, a woman who never had any kids. But then, all of a sudden, revelation. Each character opens up to the idea that maybe it’s not too late to change, not too late to take a new path in life. Transformative experiences all round, then.
Alongside this theme is the idea, or cliché, of the characters’ inability to adapt to the changing world: a woman’s frustrations with a robotic telesales girl, a bigoted old woman insisting she sees a British (meaning white) nurse instead of a black one. Each character, in some way or another, is struggling to keep up with the times. Incidentally, it’s perhaps appropriate that, being a film about aging people, it stars some of our finest ageing actors: Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy (who’s maybe not as old). Indeed the wealth of British talent makes me think of Love Actually, but with less punch, as you might expect given the material.
Like the old-timers it follows, the film is a little too reserved and, dare I say, conservative. Stephen Frears’ recent Tamara Drewe also casts an eye on an older generation, but it was set off against the sexy, younger character of Tamara. Where Frears took risks, Madden plays it safe. But then, maybe this is more of a film you would watch with your nan on a Sunday afternoon. Nothing too saucy for nan.
While the film is both a comedy and a drama, it definitely excels more in the former. When the drama does poke its head out, it’s handled in too much of a cheesy, clichéd way to be taken seriously. In fact, the film is full of stereotypes (of India, as well as old people), which there’s nothing wrong with if we’re in the realm of comedy, but as drama the profundity of the film’s message is lost.
As for the film’s conservativism – if I can call it that – it will surely appeal to people in their 50s and up, but I can’t see why it wouldn’t also appeal to younger people, who would undoubtedly recognise traits in their own elders, their mothers, fathers, grans and so on. These are the universal truths underlying the clichés, and appealing as such.
On the whole, it’s a solid comedy with a feel-good, if overstated, message that it’s never too late to start again in life, to take a risk – as opposed to playing it safe. If only the film took its own advice.