I recently went to see the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and came out with conflicting emotions. The best moments were excellent, but there were weaknesses too. The strengths ( some biting humour in the dialogue, some poignant performances, by Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie and Judi Dench.) Weaknesses: I thought the film suffered from too much need to present the quaint India of recent legend, chaotic but happy, personified by the lead Indian character Sonny, played by Dev Patel. I’m more than a little disquieted by indigenous characters acting in ‘type’. Sometimes I wonder if English letters and celluloid still struggles to leave behind Kipling’s cute but paternalistic and patronizing portrayals of natives. It reminds me of what Native Americans sometimes refer to as ‘Chiefing’, getting up in traditional garb, not as an intrinsic cultural statement, but to ham it up for the narrow perspectives of tourists. Sonny’s character and the triumph over odds plotline written for him never rose above stereotype.
That aside, the film is a masterclass in acting. I was reminded for the millionth time what an extraordinary actress Maggie Smith is, and how great actors can rise above limitations in film concepts and scripts. Smith has an ability to portray polar opposites of emotion simultaneously. In this film her words are bitter, cynical and prejudiced, but you can’t hate her because her eyes and her tiny facial gestures betray a terrible vulnerability and sadness that gives you insight into her character.
There is a poignant sequence in the film where she speaks to a hotel worker (as the worker is sweeping) not knowing the woman is an ‘untouchable.’ This plays on the painful dynamic of one prejudice (the Indian caste system) clashing with another (old fashioned racism and belief in racial superiority.) In the conversation though, Smith’s character (whose fear of difference informs her racism) lectures the worker on how to sweep, not so much out of prejudice but because she (Smith’s character) was a professional housekeeper all her life. She is then invited to the woman’s home to meet the family. Smith’s character is in a wheelchair much of the time, and she is aided into a chair inside to meet the family. In the scene’s pivotal moment she sees (through an open door) some of the teenagers in the Indian family playing with her wheelchair. She immediately thinks they are trying to steal it and in her terror and vulnerability (she’s lost without the wheelchair) verbally lashes out. It all comes out. Her fear, her fragility and her racism (she automatically assumes the natives will steal the chair, of course they will.) Her realization that they are only curious is the film’s most painful moment, and her face is riddled with conflict and shame. Her uncompromising attitude as an actress to avoid soft options and warm, fuzzy ‘conversion’ moments gives her portrayal a searing authenticity.
I was struck also by Judi Dench’s ability to enrich the physical space in a scene. You often hear comments like this: dominate the space, own the scene, which results in histrionics and ‘big acting’ (the lesser moments by Sean Penn or Keira Knightly, for example.) But Dench dominates her scenes with her gracefulness. She has a dancer’s ability to still the viewer’s eye, to not diminish the background but be in symmetry with it. She is able to do so partly because of her beauty, which is not born of some superficial concept of prettiness or niceness but because the authenticity and humanity in her face and movements carry a possibility that within all the crappy choices and consequences we’re faced with, maybe there is still just a sliver of daylight if we have the honesty and guts to search for it. That sliver of daylight, that tiny spark of hope, is what is beautiful, way beyond any airbrushed, market-researched but ultimately saccharine concept of beauty.
Tom Wilkinson’s story arc is, in contrast to Sonny’s, handled with care and delicacy and devoid of cliché. He plays a gay man immersed in the world of traditional propriety (a high court judge) who ran away from a relationship with an Indian man forty years earlier and has come back to India to find him, to own up to his fear and betrayal. The scene where they meet is deliberately underplayed and totally lacking in syrupy melodrama and music. A small, delicate thing, allowed to play out mostly within the humanity in the audience, not in huge letters on screen. This is the script’s best realized plot and story line.
So there were some false notes and weaknesses in concept and in the script, but the best of this film made it worthwhile. It struck as the work of film-makers hedging their bets, willing to have the acidic, but very real bone-dry honesty of a Mike Leigh film, but a little afraid to completely leave cosy cliché behind.
I'm glad I saw it though, for the acting alone.To remind me of how the best acting is a finely honed study and application of craft, that looks accidental.