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The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – John Madden. A masterclass in film-acting


The magnificent seven



The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – JohnMadden

If I were an artist I would want to paint her; I wish I were a better poet that she might read one of my poems; and if my life-long ambition, which will not now be fulfilled, to Direct a movie came true – I would do anything to film her. Who? Dame Judith Olivia Dench.

Towards the end of this film there is a close up of Dame Judy, three-quarter profile, late evening, exquisitely lit, every line of her 77 years visible, that evokes more Lucien Freud than Hollywood. There is something ageless, timeless about his beautiful moment in a beautifully shot film. (Cinematographer Ben Davis).

Marigold is a master class in acting: without ego or grandstanding, the cream of British character actors play generously off one another to offer a profound sub-text to this often funny, always likeable film. Even in this august company Dame Judy stands out: whenever she is on screen – you look at nothing, or no-one else. Yet she does nothing, or apparently nothing, to draw the attention. She inhabits a character on screen so apparently effortlessly that even the superb actors around her seem to draw conviction and authority from her. I can think of no actor or actress, especially from an essentially theatrical background, who has so mastered the difference between the two forms: her focus and concentration are extraordinary; we feel there is always so much going on inside – emotion, thought, intelligence.

Don’t get me wrong: this is as unlike a Streepy ‘tour-de-force’ as it is possible to be; and therefore, despite what I have said above, Dench’s portrayal of her character the newly widowed Evelyn, doesn’t unbalance the movie. Doubling up as narrator as well, we are treated to that superbly modulated, unmistakable voice as well.

Enough. Madden introduces us quickly and effectively to our chronologically gifted Magnificent Seven through a series of cameos. Norman (Ronald Pickup) merging art and reality, actually is a pick-up merchant; an ageing lothario whose efforts to get laid take on more an air of pathos and desperation than over-the-hill lasciviousness. The Astley’s – Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton), have been lately impoverished when their daughter’s internet start-up company petty-much broke the bank of Mum and Dad. Judge Tom Wilkinson (Graham) walks away from the bench to end a lifetime’s absence from the India of his youth and cherished memory.

Much married Madge (Celia Imrie. Son-in-law asks: “how many husbands have you had?” she relies “just mine?”) eschews grannyhood and baby-sitting fatigues to find someone, preferably well-heeled, to fan her undying spark back into flame. Just to prove there is nothing like a Dame; Madden has an embarrassment of thespian riches with two: the second, Dame Margaret Nathalie Smith shedding her Downton Aristocratic bearing here as Muriel, a Dot Cotton sound-alike more racially phobic and ignorant than objectionably racist who reluctantly accepts that surgery in India will replace her worn-out hip 6-months earlier than the NHS. After 40 years of marriage to a husband more lovable than wise, especially with money, Dame Judy’s Evelyn has to sell her flat to pay-off his debts and must now seek her first ever paid employment.

For their various reasons therefore our motley crew are united in their unwise desire to believe the too good to be true on-line advert for the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – for the elderly and the beautiful” photo-shopped by Sonny (Dev Patel) whose entrepreneurialism feeds his vision of an outsourced old age for the adventurous elderly from around the world: but doesn’t extend to finding the finance to support it.

Travel broadens only open minds and Jean, unlike Muriel is a nest of 2nd hand Middle-class verities that sadly do their job only too well: to filter out the unknown and therefore the fear of confronting new experience without a proven plan to keep her safe. ‘Equipped at the expense of joy’ as E.M Forster once put it. Jean is a perfect study in the tragic sterility of middle-class values, the most important of which, a defined social position, has just been taken from her. In contrast her long-suffering husband Douglas feels liberated from a life-time of conventional demands and expectations. He relishes the challenge of the new and the excitement of the unknown. He embraces the thrill of uncertainty and risk. Truly an ill-matched pair as so it turns out.

Each of our characters, coming to terms in their own way with accepting age but eschewing ‘old’, achieves a kind of place to be. This is played for laughs; perhaps over-milking the more stereotypical elements of anglo-Indian relationships. However, these superb actors, at the top of their very considerable games, invest adequate but sometimes trite dialogue and stock situations with a conviction that establishes their their characters and engages us with them. None more so than Tom Wilkinson’s Graham whose wistful regret at a life of personal fulfilment lost is as touching as it is unexpected.

Norman sheds his fantasies of being a babe-magnet to find that loneliness shared is loneliness shed. Evelyn gets a job we can all heartily identify with and a possibility of a further happiness we would all wish for her; and the real Douglas finally sees the light of day and embraces it with gratitude.

Dame Maggie,(a mere 19 days Dame Judy’s junior) wheelchair and prejudice-bound as mardy Muriel, looking as if she has bided her time with character and dialogue for nearly two hours, eventually grabs the initiative and the closing narrative in a way only she can.

The Indian context and the likeable, if at times breathless physicality of Dev Patel’s impractically idealistic hotel-keeper provides the setting and clashing cultures to sustain the humour. The English abroad revert to two extremes: being ignorantly obnoxious or being slightly surreal but endlessly diverting figures of fun. It is no coincidence that in this week’s radio 4 Spike Milligan celebration, he defined himself as having an Anglo-Indian sense of humour.

I guess it would be possible to take exception to many of the cultural assumptions in Marigold: the same was true of Slumdog Millionaire but this latest witty, touching little movie deserves such complaint far less than that more troubling creation. True the cultural perspective does seem a touch colonial along with much of the humour, but the complexity of Anglo-Indian shared history perhaps can accommodate such qualms.

Wittgenstein once said that some of our deepest and most precious experiences like beauty and moral sentiment could not be expressed or stated within language but could only be shown through its use. What writer Ol Parker’s dialogue within this film says about age and ageing is fairly trite and clichéd; its setting and assumptions obviously contrived to generate laughs. On that level it works well enough and I would heartily recommend it to anyone for a thoroughly entertaining night out.

However what Marigold shows but does not state about age runs much deeper. Just shy of 500 years of unmatched experience and mastery of the fragile art of acting shows us seven men and women at their very best: better than they have ever been; making a nonsense of the facile claim of the inevitability of diminished powers with age. This isn’t just true of actors: free from the random tragedy of serious illness, there are plenty of people of age, in all walks of life, able to do better than ever before, most of the things they still want to do. That too often they are denied the opportunity to do so is a cultural perversity in which everyone loses: a wisdom seen far more clearly in other cultures of the world.

Our lives, especially in youth are inevitably driven by a sense of becoming: the next stage, the next challenge. What the characters in Marigold are, with varying degrees of success, coming to terms with is more how to be who and what they are; rather than what they might become. What these seven experienced and talented actors, irrespective of their roles, demonstrate with total conviction and authority is what reaching this perspective certainly in their professional life looks like. And nothing and no one shows this more powerfully than Dame Judy Dench whose capacity to simply be on camera captures the essence of great film acting.

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