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Mature beauty; Superb cast brings charisma and comedy to 'Marigold Hotel'

Let me be as direct as Maggie Smith's plainspoken character in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" -- don't miss this movie.

The cast is stellar -- besides Smith, we have Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy. The scenery is gorgeous. And the plot, in which seven British retirees find both less and more than they expected at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, is punctuated with perfectly timed comedic moments.

We meet the British seniors -- "pensioners," as they would be called at home -- as each is suffering some sort of crisis. Evelyn (Dench) has just been widowed and is adrift. Douglas (Nighy, with a face of solemn angles) and Jean (Penelope Wilson, with a brittle edge) are penniless after sinking their savings into their daughter's apparently failed Internet business.

Graham (Wilkinson), a high court judge, gives up his work on what seems to be a whim until the pieces fall into place later in the film. Muriel (Smith) is a retired housekeeper who needs a hip replacement and does not bother to suppress the occasional vicious racist remark. Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Madge (Celia Imrie) are two singletons looking for love -- him with a younger woman, her with a rich man. They're not picky -- any younger woman and any rich man will do.

Each of these folks signs up to be whisked away to a luxurious but mysteriously affordable resort in Jaipur, India, called the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

The relentlessly optimistic manager, Sonny (played with convincing charm by Dev Patel of "Slumdog Millionaire") has big plans to, as he says, "outsource old age." Providing a home for foreign, pension-collecting elderly, will provide the income he needs to restore the shambling, once-luxurious hotel that was his dead father's dream.

Like the cast, whose spectacularly wrinkled faces and gray hair fill the camera's gaze, the hotel, upon closer look, reveals flaws. The courtyard in which the group gathers is verdant and airy, but the rooms are a jumble of broken, dusty furniture.

It turns out that a brochure depicting luxurious splendor was Photoshopped -- or, as Sonny smilingly admits, "offered a vision of the future."

As his bewildered guests settle in, Sonny proudly posts an update on the hotel's sign: "Now with guests!" In recognition of the tastes of the new occupants, one of whom arrives with a bag stuffed full of tea, biscuits, pickles and other British delicacies, Sonny's staff cooks a roast for dinner. It's roast goat curry, but oh, well.

The Indian street scenes, in which we are immersed in color, noise and movement of the most surprising kind -- from camels and elephants to motor vehicles of every description packed with people and luggage -- are raucously entertaining.

As the plot shifts from one character to another in fast-moving, satisfying vignettes, we get to know the people behind the caricatures. The harassed husband is clinging to his inner strength and loyalty. The widow takes small steps she never thought she could. In their interactions with each other and the staff and residents of Jaipur, the characters develop. Jealousy, longing, loneliness, interest, glee and satisfaction are among the subtle emotions that play across the characters' seamed faces and light up their eyes.

Of course, Dench, Wilkinson and Smith are stellar in portraying their complicated characters. We even come to love the irascible Muriel a bit. But two lesser-known actors with juicy roles nearly steal the show. Pickup and Imrie, who play rogues Norman and Madge, preen and sparkle on the screen. Madge tempers her longing for love with a bit of creeping insecurity about her age, while Norman, with his thinning mane and mustache-framed leer, is confident in his continuing appeal. When they join forces to chat up a blonde at the bar of an exclusive club, their prey, Carol (Diane Hardcastle) never has a chance.

It is characteristic of this splendid movie that when a cliche we can see coming from a mile away happens -- a lover sneaks into the wrong bed -- it is played out in a totally unexpected and hilarious way, with sparkling comedic timing. Well done!

The most poignant part of the story concerns Graham, whose life in Jaipur is haunted in ways the others only slowly comprehend. Wilkinson is excellent in this subtle role.

As his guests settle in amid mishaps and adventures, the focus shifts a bit to happy-go-lucky Sonny. He loves the Sunaina (Tena Desae), but her businessman brother and Sonny's mother oppose the match. And when his overbearing, no-nonsense mother (Lillete Dubey) arrives to close and sell the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it looks as though his plans will crumble like the neglected walls of his dream hotel.

As the movie comes to its satisfying conclusion, we realize that the wrinkles and physical handicaps of old age, which so afflicted these characters when they were in crisis, neither define nor limit them. And the decrepit, neglected hotel, too, has become beautiful.




4 stars (out of 4)    

STARRING: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Dev Patel    

DIRECTOR: John Madden    

RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes    

RATING: Rated PG-13 for sexual content and language.    

THE LOWDOWN: British retirees outsource their retirement to a hotel in India.