John Madden’s Super-Group Retires to India
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Based on Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel imagines a final adventure for a group of English men and women, one last hurrah where they can get away from the familiar day-to-day they’ve come to know all too well or busy families caught up in living in the digital now, which in some cases is hopelessly unknowable to their elders. Yet, the cast features a collection of egos and heavyweights worthy of a far grander heroic tale.
During split press conferences, director John Madden and actress Penelope Wilton shared time, while Dame Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson held court on the second panel.
In response to the very first question, about handling the assemblage, Madden humorously (and with a bit of stiff British stoicism), points out that it was best “to keep out of the way.” Of course as the ringleader, Madden, a consummate team player and a true field captain could do no such thing; this team was at his command. His films (Mrs. Brown and Shakespeare in Love) have been decorated with BAFTA and Oscar nominations. He knew the best plan of attack was “to put them in the right place, tell them where the camera was going to be and let them get on with it.”
Hotel follows closely on the heels of The Debt, which featured Wilkinson, the thunderous thespian of the bunch. Quietly reserved as Graham Dashwood, a retired magistrate returning to India, where he spent his youth and seeks to resolve a secret that has haunted him for most of his adult life, Wilkinson provides more of a tempestuous charge during his joint press conference with Dench, the ultra cool and unflappable queen, yet completely believable as a less certain woman left to her own devices in a strange land. Rounding out the top tier is a wildcard. Wilton has made her presence known in films like Calendar Girls, Match Point, and quite hilariously in Shaun of the Dead, but she very nearly steals the Hotel from the heavy hitters as Jean Ainslie, an unhappily married woman who is completely dissatisfied with the exoticism of this final destination. She is smashingly honest in this most difficult role.
There is something mythic in the tale because it is about the journey of a group of people, each of them an Everyman and Everywoman in their own right, and this last trip will be a doozy. And why not? Sun-baked Jaipur might be the most exotic location left on the planet, the kind of setting that would challenge hardened tourists in their traveling primes. The exotic culture and its unique rituals, the teeming mass of humanity and the cacophony of languages, pushed the characters and the production as a whole to the limit.
Wilton seems to understand, and even appreciate her character’s reticence, thanks to dealing with moments on set that felt, as she recalls, more like “guerilla filmmaking.”
A particular moment springs to mind, that appears in the film, at the bus station, when the retirees are making their way to the hotel, and “Bill Nighy [a sharp-eyed reservist in support] has just helped [Penelope’s character] onto the bus and was supposed to turn around and help Judi Dench on, when some man had wandered into the shot.” Madden laughs as he relays the situation because “as he [Nighy] helped this man onto the bus, he completely improvised some hilarious exchange that made it into the film.”
What comes across onscreen as effortless is all about the herculean efforts to not let the effort show. And it appears again in choice sequences at the press conference, for instance, as Wilkinson and Dench, the old pros, good-cop, bad-cop their way through a minefield of questions about the difficulties of locations and soldiering on as actors nearing their twilight. Madden and his heroes may not be franchise-ready, but they won’t tire and they won’t ever grow old, not as long as these memories and images survive.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com