Here's a film to wean us all off the rich fare we've been offered over the awards season. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, directed by John Madden and adapted by Ol Parker from Deborah Moggach's novel These Foolish Things, is a Stannah Slumdog that doesn't so much pander to its aged target audience as go round to every one of their homes to make sure the newspapers and milk have been taken in. It opens with a list of reasons one might want to check out of dreary old England: the frustration of automated phone systems (Judi Dench is a widow who doesn't have her late husband's security password to hand), poor-to-awful retirement prospects (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton barely have a pension to call their own; Tom Wilkinson is a high-court judge watching his contemporaries being put out to pasture), ingrate kids (who don't believe Celia Imrie can do anything for herself).
We take a large, wheezing breath, before ploughing on. There are the bloody immigrants (Maggie Smith is a "comedy" racist bemoaning the presence of black and Asian doctors on her hospital ward; of the half-full house somewhere in Middle England that I saw the film with, one sensed 50% of the viewers were laughing along with her), the endless rain (no matter that the film opened on the first real spring-like weekend of 2012), a general sense of worthlessness. These characters' destination is the establishment of the title, for retirement in most cases, recuperation in the ailing Smith's case, the idea - presumably spotted in a newspaper feature or magazine article somewhere along the line - being that this kind of overseas escape has become a boom industry at a time when nothing much else in the West is. One shot of a crowded departure lounge suggests everyone's at it; I was reminded of the TV Burp line on one of the numerous docusoaps about Brits who've gone to live and work overseas, "or traitors, as we call them".
The genteel Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Mrs. Brown) goes for a style understandably more sedate than Danny Boyle did in his Oscar success, so as not to give the greyhairs in Row F conniptions. This India is less manic and overpopulated than welcoming and spacious. "The first rule of India" - and there are a lot of rules and lessons in Parker's script, which will doubtless be reassuring for some - "is that there's always room," ventures Wilkinson, cramming his fellow travellers onto a bus at the airport. Though the hotel turns out to be ramshackle, and though the rooms have birds in the rafters and no doors, and though the streets reek of elephant dung in Wilton's opinion, the country serves as a kind of paradise, both earthly and spiritual. As the hotel's eternally optimistic manager Dev Patel (in a competitive week for embarrassing Brit-Asian performances, giving by far the worst) has it: "We have a saying in India: everything will be all right in the end." (Told you about those lessons.)
The trouble is that neither the journeys ventured on, nor the destinations arrived at, are especially compelling on the screen, where they might have been on the page. These characters have gone to India not on a quest, to find themselves or others; they've come to retire, which leaves us with two hours of downtime to get through. Wilkinson wanders off to play cricket with some local boys as a warm-up for the film's most tokenistic plot strand (for which we have the vast success of Mamma Mia! to thank). Dench at least gets to go for a job interview, but winds up talking about biscuits and tea. Nighy pops into town at one point for help fixing a tap in his room, and generally has better luck with the plumbing than Ronald Pickup, who has a fall in the shower while dancing to "Le Freak". (As the party's resident horndog, Pickup is the recipient of the only good joke in the script - though it's an old one, of course; asked whether it might be considered a risk, making love at his age, he chuckles "well, if she dies, she dies".) When they're not pottering about the place so, or sitting down for tea or dinner (there's a lot of that), the cast - operating in the lower gears for much of it - are seen reading Moggach's other books, as though looking for a real story, with real parts, which might give them something worthwhile to do. (Madden was linked for a long while with a possible screen version of the author's Tulip Fever, Wilton's holiday reading of choice.)
The blithely sunny outlook sees little that might be bleak or tragic in this exile, living away from one's remaining family with death the only certainty; it even finds some fun in the idea of old age as something to be outsourced and profited from. In a setpiece conceived to show off her spunkiness, Dench ends up teaching local call-centre employees (all fresh-faced and enthusiastic, and possessed of enough spare time to romance Dev Patel) just how to cajole ageing clients like her into speaking to them, the insinuation being that old people are so lonely that they'll talk to anyone, even those ringing up in the middle of their programmes to try and flog them mobile broadband. (The film dares not denounce such gerontosploitation, perhaps because it has eyes on making off with the grey pound itself.) Everything ends up all right, as it must - this is India, apparently - but beneath its toplayer of cosy matinee gentility, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel proves ever so slightly insulting of that very audience whose wattles it sets out to tickle.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is in cinemas nationwide.