Stories about uptight Brits unravelling when in contact with more exotic cultures make up something of a literary and cinematic sub-genre, although thanks to E.M. Forster it is usually Italy that seems to be particularly effective in churning up all those repressed Home Counties emotions, with India a distant second. However, since we have thoroughly divested ourselves of our corsets and starch collars — indeed apparently turned into a nation of emotional exhibitionists — the transformative effect of “abroad” now has to derive from different sources. There is after all many a Greek island which, surveying the damage after another summer season, wishes we were just a bit more buttoned-up.
In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it is the neglect and invisibility visited on those past retirement age in Britain which provides the impetus to flee to more welcoming climes. Based on the novel by Deborah Moggach about an assorted group of senior citizens who take off for a stay in a luxurious Indian hotel, only to find it virtually derelict, this film opened to very lukewarm reviews, but its word-of-mouth popularity has been substantial, taking it to the top of the box office charts. Having seen it not at a press screening, with all the attendant knowingness of such gatherings, but at the cinema with real live people, I can completely understand why. It was a wet, chilly night in Greenwich, and for a couple of hours, the fullish house (of all ages) at my local multiplex was transported to another place, with characters who, judging by the lack of general fidgeting and whispering going on, they obviously considered absorbing and entertaining company. Can you really ask more of a film than that?
The story is not especially original, and certainly it’s not without cliché: India “assaults the senses” we are told, something I can readily attest to, having seen many a travel documentary but never having actually been near the place. Likewise, you have to “give in to it or it will run you over” (the same could be said of New York, I suppose). But I could forgive the film these occasional lapses into triteness, simply because it had paid the audience the double compliment of being so completely well-made (precision-tooled almost) and good-natured in its desire to entertain and, possibly, move.
This is not Forster or Paul Scott territory. There’s only a small reference to the imperial legacy, which seems to play little part in the characters’ reaction to the place (they could all have been settling in Thailand and it wouldn’t have changed the story much), and in tone it owes more to Shirley Valentine than The Jewel in the Crown. It also springs the occasional surprise — one of the lead characters, there to find a long-lost first love, is gay, for example, and another particularly uptight suburban type, far from being opened up by the assault on her senses, has her dislikes confirmed right to the very end — only to see her life change in a different way.
Directed by John Madden, who made the brilliantly clever Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has the sort of cast which gives you that welcome feeling (especially on a wet Saturday night) of knowing you’re in safe hands. As a widow who finds that her husband wasn’t the reliable sort she’d always thought, Judi Dench is at the centre of it all, like a sort of thespian mother ship. I’ve been racking my brains since watching this film and still can’t come up with a movie in which she gives a bad or indifferent performance. Her assurance in front of the camera seems only to increase. Now well into her seventies, she has become one of the great international screen actors and, for what’s it worth, more beautiful with age. We can predict from the start that her character will come out of this well, but that is what we want to happen; it’s an unchanging attribute particular to true stars that they take us along a well-known route, with us perfectly happy to go with them.
Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Celia Imrie and Bill Nighy are among the disappointed, unfulfilled and regretful types who populate the Last Chance Saloon around her. They might be stereotypical — Wilkinson is a successful but lonely judge, Imrie a woman of a certain age who sees this trip as her last try at finding love — but they manage not to drift into caricature. And stereotypical or not, there is never any question that we care about what happens to them. Their concerns and fears will have a resonance with anybody over 50 who has ever dreamed of starting over again, or making up for lost time — and that must surely mean most people.
Speaking of buttoned-up Brits, Julian Fellowes’s new series Titanic is on television in time for the 100th anniversary of the most famous sinking of all time. As a kind of Downton-at-Sea, it is natural territory for him. But the cinema too is doing its bit, with the re-release this month of the 1958 British film A Night to Remember, and James Cameron’s epic from 40 years later, Titanic, which has had 3D added. The mysterious appeal of the ship that could never sink accounts for it having featured in nearly 30 films and TV dramas, but apparently historians regard A Night to Remember, which was directed by Roy Ward Baker and starred Kenneth More and Honor Blackman, as the most accurate of them all.
This shouldn’t necessarily make it a better film, but there’s something in its measured, almost documentary approach which certainly makes it more convincing than Cameron’s, with its dominating teenage love story, synthetic hysteria, and grudge against the nasty upper-crust types in first-class.