As John Carter (review pending) disappoints at the box office, the surprise smash that almost kept it from the top spot is this Saga-tastic tale of superannuated Brits upping sticks to the titular crumbling hotel in Jaipur. A cunning meld of mid-market source material, picturesque location, dubious (but harmless) national stereotyping and National Treasure™ actors has struck a chord with UK cinema audiences and will no doubt turn a very healthy profit.
While I’m outside the film’s target demographic, there were still a few things I was looking forward to – I’m a big fan of some of the performers involved, I have an abstract sense of liking India (I have some Raj-era family history, and my Grandma used to tell me endless stories of the ‘tiger on the veranda’ variety) and generally appreciate any attempt to make serious films that ignore the whims of teenage boys.
So I’ll deal with the negatives first. There’s no doubt that this is a flawed film, most noticeably in the story and plot – or rather, plots: Best Exotic Marigold Hotel suffers from adaptation-syndrome, i.e. attempting to stuff far too much of the source novel (Deborah Moggach’s These Foolish Things) into the movie. There are simply too many characters, and therefore too many story threads, to genuinely care about any of them - only three of these plotlines are worth putting on screen, and only one (Tom Wilkinson’s homosexual old India hand) is genuinely compelling.
The script itself is periodically witty, though some of the funnier lines are brazenly stolen (for example Celia Imrie – whose character is ill-served by the writing – mimics Peggy Guggenheim’s notorious response on being asked how many husbands she had had: “Mine, or other people’s?”), and elsewhere believable dialogue is foregone in favour of shoehorning in a stagey, laughter-seeking riposte. All very Wildean, but without poor old Oscar’s originality.
Also, some of the ‘old people not understanding technology’ tropes are laid on a bit thick, with Judi Dench forgoing her customary steel to bleat “what’s a broadband?” before inexplicably learning how write a blog (which itself is used as a rather ungainly framing device for the narrative). This is not Dame Judi’s finest hour, nor is it Bill Nighy’s, who is either being increasingly typecast or has a crippling lack of range. We don’t get the best of Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie, both lumbered with terrible characters, though Penelope Wilton does commendably well as Nighy’s shrewish wife.
Similarly solid is Tom Wilkinson, who brings a nuanced dignity to his role, and Maggie Smith is titanically good as a racist old cockney, whose hip-replacement operation has been somewhat preposterously ‘outsourced’ to India. Dev Patel as the young hotel owner is OK and I’ve nothing against him personally – but could the filmmakers seriously not find a young Indian actor (i.e. actually from India) to play the role? Even I could tell that his accent was a bit hokey.
While we’re on this theme, other critics have pointed out that the picture given of India and Indian people is both stereotypical and offensively patronising. I wouldn’t quite go that far – the British characters are themselves stereotypes (or, more kindly, archetypes), and while the country is viewed with rose-tinted affection it’s not really the job of this film to give expression to the full scale of Indian society (a mere billion people). And its feet are planted in firmer ground than the deliberately dreamlike Darjeeling Express or even the mendacious, overpraised Slumdog Millionaire. It actually reminded me a great deal of last year’s West is West, though that film failed to find the same audience.
I’ve harped on a bit there, but I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the film – in fact I did; it’s a solid couple of hours of bland amusement. I doubt it’ll trouble many ‘best of 2012’ lists, but its very existence as an accessible, moderately intelligent, adult-oriented film is praiseworthy and maybe it’ll teach the studios a lesson about remembering their audience