Skip to main content

'Marigold Hotel' defies the naysayers

By Nicolaus Mills, Special to NN
updated 10:25 AM EDT, Tue May 29, 2012
"Hotel Marigold" actors Bill Nighy, from left, Ronald Pickup, producer Graham Broadbent, director John Madden, actors Judi Dench, Dev Patel, Diana Hardcastle, Penelope Wilton, Tom Wilkinson and Celia Imrie at the premiere of their film in London.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Despite patronizing critics, "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" is surprise hit movie of the year
  • Nicolaus Mills: Movie's popularity shows audiences do care about older people's lives
  • Mills: English literature often points up failures of British society by contrasting life abroad
  • "Marigold Hotel" reveals the compassion in India that was lacking in life in England

Editor's note: Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower.

(CNN) -- With ticket sales closing in on $100 million, the surprise hit of the year is "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," a film about seven English retirees who travel to India to take up residence at the rundown Marigold Hotel, which, according to its misleading brochures, will provide them with inexpensive comfort in their remaining years.

But what makes "Marigold Hotel," which is directed by John Madden of "Shakespeare in Love" fame, far more interesting than its box-office success is how it has defied the patronizing reviews of critics --including those of The Times of India and The Telegraph in England -- who have categorized it as little more than entertainment for people in their 50s starring actors in their 70s.

Indeed, how patronizing the critics have been is reflected in the fact that review after review, starting with "Marigold Hotel" stars, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench (both of whom are 77), has made a point of dwelling on the ages of the ensemble cast.

The popularity of "Marigold Hotel" tells us that unlike the critics, today's audiences don't find the struggles of the old and middle-aged less worthy of their attention than those of the young. But the charm of the film isn't confined to its depiction of the elderly trying to make the most of the rest of their lives.

Nicolaus Mills
Nicolaus Mills

At the heart of "Marigold Hotel" lies a compassion that contrasts starkly with the coldness the film's retirees experienced in the England they left behind. The youthful manager of the Marigold Hotel, played with comic brilliance by Dev Patel (the lead in "Slumdog Millionaire"), may have misled his retirees about the quality of his hotel, but he has underplayed his own decency and enthusiasm.

There is a long tradition in English literature of pointing up the failures of British society by contrasting life at home with life abroad. E. M. Forester's 1908 novel, "A Room with a View," which in 1985 was successfully adapted for the screen, provided a searing critique of the stuffiness of Edwardian life by allowing its young heroine to find romance in Italy. "Marigold Hotel," which is based on Deborah Moggach's 2004 novel, "These Foolish Things," follows this same tradition, as it captures the English fascination with warm climates.

In this case, however, the Forester novel with which "Marigold Hotel" has the most in common is his 1924 masterpiece, "Passage to India." In Forester's story it is the Indians, over whom the British then ruled, who show the greatest capacity for love and friendship.

In "Marigold Hotel," the English retirees find a gentleness in the city of Jaipur that was not present in their homeland. In contrast to the British of the 19th century, the retirees of "Marigold Hotel" are not out to extract fortunes from their new land. They are instead out to preserve dwindling incomes and make peace with their past.

Not all of them succeed, but enough of them do to suggest modern India, even with its traffic jams and elephants and camels in the streets, is a land of opportunity:

Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), a housekeeper who after years of service was fired from her job by the family she worked for, finds that in India she can get the hip replacement surgery she needs without waiting and, despite herself, she slowly loses the racial bigotry she brought with her.

Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench), a widow whose husband has died, saddling her with debt that forces her to sell her home, gets employment helping out at an Indian call center and in the process frees herself from the condescending pity of her children.

Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson), a gay High Court judge, who left India full of shame when he brought his young Indian lover into disgrace, finds that he is welcomed back as an old friend.

Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy), who has fled to India with his quarrelsome wife Jean (Penelope Wilton) because their daughter lost most of their savings in a failed start-up, realizes that he is better off when his wife leaves him and returns to England.

The randy Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) and the even randier Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) learn that in India age is not the barrier it was in England to the sexual adventure they are seeking.

Can these happy endings last? "Marigold Hotel" never provides a final answer just as it rarely allows tragedy to creep in.

But the "Marigold Hotel" does not need to offer they-lived-happily-ever-after reassurance to succeed. It is enough that, thanks to their change in scenery, the film's central characters have refused to resign themselves to ending their lives in quiet despair.

What in 1947 on the eve of independence India's first prime minister, Jawaharial Nehru, called his nation's "Tryst with Destiny" has become for the retirees of the "Marigold Hotel" a tryst with old age as a result of their new country and its people.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicolaus Mills.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT