As you may or may not know, Mrs Chrisparkle and I are great fans of anything to do with India. It’s our favourite country to visit, the people are lovely and the cacophony of sights, sounds and smells on every street are enough to stimulate the most jaded of brains; although whilst I am sure there are plenty of eclectic hotels like the Best Exotic Marigold (or indeed the Second Best Exotic Marigold) we’d prefer to stay in an Oberoi or Taj, if that’s ok with you.
We saw the original film on TV last year. I thought it was charming, heart-warming, gently funny and an incredibly accurate representation of India. I also don’t know anyone who saw it who wasn’t delighted by it. The film was a relatively unexpected commercial success, grossing $138m on a $10m budget. No surprise, then, that they got their heads together to come up with a sequel. It’s been out a while now, and we missed it when it first came to the Errol Flynn; but word reached us that the new film was still delightful, but not as delightful as the original. It’s usually the case with sequels.
It’s not vital to have seen the first film, but I think it would help, if only to understand better the characters and relationships behind the names. Sonny (who runs the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a quiet, idyllic but somewhat chaotic establishment, catering for an energetic, adventurous, and retired clientele) is now in a working partnership with Muriel, one of the original clients. They fly to San Diego to seek financial backing from a large conglomerate to buy and convert a dilapidated hotel so that Sonny’s dream of entrepreneurial empire building can become a reality; cue lots of great lines for Maggie Smith about how much she enjoyed America, (not). However, the path of true business never runs smoothly, and a combination of hotel inspectors (or are they?), rival purchasers and the usual shenanigans of the residents of the hotel get in the way. To add to the proceedings, preparations are underway for Sonny and Sunaina’s wedding. There’s an engagement party, and a family party – but with all the distractions and a jealous groom will they actually make it to the wedding day, and will Sonny’s dream of being a multi-hotelier be realised? You’ll know after 2 hours and 2 minutes.
For the most part, the story is wafer thin and what little there is is overwhelmed by a few additional distracting side-plots. There’s a sequence where Norman mistakenly encourages a taxi-driver to murder his girlfriend Carol, and then spends a lot of effort trying to stop him. As a plot it goes nowhere and I found it rather tedious. The whole “which, if any, of the guests is the hotel inspector” storyline also goes on a bit long and, to be honest, we don’t really care. What we do care about, a lot, is the characters. The film is peppered with some wonderful creations, the majority of them with the first flush of youth a long way behind them, and we really want them to carpe diem and make the most of the time that’s remaining. The on –off relationship (mainly off) between Douglas and Evelyn has you tearing your hair in frustration that she won’t commit to him. The return of his ex-wife Jean demanding divorce drives it home that it’s even more important that they get on with life.
At the other end of the “dalliance” scale, Madge has been stringing along two Indian suitors mischievously simply because she can but realises that when it comes to the crunch neither of them is what she wants. The resolution to this problem, whilst telegraphed a mile off, is beautifully realised. And the character of Muriel has developed from the difficult, complaining old biddy she was into a wise Everyman figure who watches the action from the side-lines. Despite that gruff exterior, she genuinely wants people to make the best of what they’ve got, and not fritter away their time like she did. The dialogue is very well-written and brings the characters to life, and it goes without saying that the cinematography is beautiful and makes you long for India itself.
But for me, three stand-out performances drive the film onwards, and, frankly, you’d enjoy it no matter what the script contained. Judi Dench is exquisite as Evelyn; bold and capable in the world of work but tentative (and hating herself for it) when it comes to love. You can’t imagine Dame Judi putting in a performance that wasn’t just instinctively Dame Judi. Her elegant voice can capture the full range of emotions from self-doubt to self-confidence, imbued with cheekiness or sorrow all in the same sentence. Eloquent and understanding, more than capable of defending herself in argument, but essentially fragile and needing reassurance. It’s a beautiful performance.
And it’s a fantastic juxtaposition with Dame Maggie Smith as Muriel, dismissive of waffle and impatient with incompetence, never one to pull any punches whilst talking to those who might consider themselves to be her superiors, all the while looking mortality in the face with quiet dignity. Whilst Dame Judi is always Dame Judi, Dame Maggie can be anyone. As a wonderful contrast to her Downton Abbey character, here she is a commoner, with a down at mouth accent and shabby of appearance, but never dull of wit. The third outstanding performance is by Dev Patel who, as Sonny, absolutely encapsulates that tendency of spirited and ambitious young Indian people to deliver outspoken superlatives, massively overhype any project and never let a silence go uninterrupted. His balance of being both deeply in love with Sunaina but also a useless fiancé means we can all recognise aspects of ourselves in his hopelessly ham-fisted relationship. He’s also really funny – and a convincing Bollywood dancer too.
Bill Nighy is back, still playing Bill Nighy, playing Douglas, stumbling over himself to do the right thing and say the right words, attempting to conceal crestfallen feelings when things don’t work out right: the epitome of middle-aged male vulnerability. Penelope Wilton is spot-on as ex-wife Jean, using attack as the best form of defence in attempting to secure a divorce, giving an appearance of cheerfulness which is as hollow as their ex-marriage. Celia Imrie has her usual knowing sexual predator look on her face even when she’s been sprung, when her two suitors turn up at the same time – but she does it awfully well. Ronald Pickup as Norman and Diana Hardcastle as Carol play a couple going through a hard time but not expressing it to one another, and it’s very touching.
The big additions to the cast for this film are Richard Gere as Guy Chambers, whom Sonny instantly suspects is the hotel inspector and therefore stumbles over himself, Basil Fawlty-style, to over-ingratiate himself with him; and Tamsin Greig as Lavinia, ostensibly at the hotel to check if it will be suitable for her mother. For a comic actress of Ms Greig’s quality she is woefully underutilised but carries off her disappointed, shocked but far too well-behaved to complain persona with her usual aplomb. Mr Gere is excellent as Guy, the debonair traveller, rising to the challenge of asking Sonny’s mother out for a meal, dealing with all the attention he inevitably gets because of his looks with refined false modesty. Lillete Dubey (Mrs Kapoor) is slow to react to his charms at first, and a difficult conquest to make, but then goes the way of all womankind when they encounter Richard Gere.
Like its original, it’s a heart-warming and charming film; it’s never going to count as one of the finest films of all time but there’s plenty of character development and universal truths to get your teeth into. Plus the thrills and beauties of India. What more could you ask?