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Film review: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ***

By Preston Wilder

It’s Dev Patel week at the multiplex! The brash, jug-eared Indian-English actor creates new life out of battered old parts in Chappie [see opposite page] – and does much the same in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel though in fact it’s not just Sonny, the manic hotel manager, who rejuvenates the elderly Brits here, it’s India and romance and a new life in general. They came to Jaipur in the smash-hit original – and they’re still there in this likeable sequel, living an OAP wish-fulfilment fantasy that includes new jobs and apparently infinite sexual opportunity.

The first film made lots of money, especially in the UK, but it seemed a bit off to me – not quite racist, but certainly condescending. The elderly expats were benign mentors, teaching Indian street-kids how to hold their cricket bats and giving housemaids tips on how to sweep the floor (acerbic Muriel, played by Maggie Smith, used to clean floors for a living back home). Above all, the set-up was that Sonny (that’s Dev) was running the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel into the ground – at least till the Brits showed this feckless Indian how to do the job properly, ending with Muriel being appointed as co-manager.

The sequel is much more palatable, maybe because the Brits have now settled in and have more of a relationship with the locals. Evelyn (Judi Dench) gets a job buying fabrics from local merchants, and finds a valuable ally in an Indian colleague (indeed, she’d be lost without him); Madge (Celia Imrie) is deeply impressed by the wise Indian driver who ferries her between her two wealthy suitors. Sonny is still rather feckless – but it’s now increasingly clear that the difference between him and Muriel isn’t that she’s English and he’s Indian, but simply that she’s old and canny while he’s young and bumptious. (His fiancée is a lot smarter, as are most of his friends.) That said, India offers a very particular setting for these expats – a pre-modern society where they fit in better than they do at home, and implicitly a place where being British carries some respect, from colonial times.

The film makes clear, subtly, that these relics would be out of place in modern Britain. Douglas (Bill Nighy) hates mobile phones – but that’s OK, because no-one in Jaipur has one. Madge gives a primitive music box as a present to a little girl (the girl’s friends huddle round to look, fascinated by the low-tech gift), and muses that it reminds her of her own childhood. That’s why the film is poignant, because the Brits carry the repression of an earlier time – but have finally learned to “let go”, in the twilight of their lives.

Plot is thin, for a two-hour movie: the first film was based on a novel, but the sequel is merely based on the success of the first film. Ol Parker’s screenplay has a Love Boat structure, with assorted sub-plots – the main one borrowed from Fawlty Towers (Sonny thinks one of the guests is a hotel inspector), a minor one seemingly inspired by Strangers on a Train (randy old Norman talks too much in a tuk-tuk, and thinks he may have inadvertently ordered a hit on his girlfriend). Plot isn’t really the point, though. The point is the exultation of sad lonely people revived by love, even including dashing American import Richard Gere (“Dear lord, have mercy on my ovaries,” mutters Madge when he walks through the door) who admits he was “bruised” by life but now feels alive again: “My blood is moving!”. Love is simple, that’s the ultimate message: “This is what the young make us remember,” sighs Douglas, giving a speech at Sonny’s wedding – that you look in someone’s eyes and that’s it, the years fall away and so do a lifetime’s inhibitions. It’s really quite touching.

It’s a moot point whether Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel will repeat the success of the original; it doesn’t have the fish-out-of-water element, and it doesn’t really ‘go’ anywhere (though death is never far away in this franchise, and claims one character at the end like it did in the first film). The crowd-pleasing Englishness – Maggie Smith fulminating over a proper cup of tea, or opining that going to America “made death more tempting” – may be enough for some viewers but in fact this modest sequel deserves a wider audience, a warm and compassionate film (even Douglas’ horrid wife gets a speech to humanise her) and quite a romantic one. It’s almost enough to make you overlook the fact that the romance in question is between (yikes!) older people – “although you, dear lady, are nearer to the menopause than the mortuary,” as Sonny puts it with his customary tact. Dev Patel, ladies and gentlemen.




STARRING Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel

UK/US 2015        122 mins

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