Politics at the Movies

Malcolm: I loved the Newsweek headline for their review of “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”—“Eat, Pray, Die.” Not that there was a lot of praying going on. Actually, I don’t remember any. Maybe it should have been “Eat, Love, Die,” (though that sounds a little Darwinian) because the aging Brits in this predictable but charming little tale remain obsessed with their love lives, but not much concerned with any afterlife they’ll soon experience (or not).

To back up, the story involves a group of down-on-their-finances British retirees who decide to stretch their money by settling at a hotel in India advertised for the purpose. A big part of the draw for many viewers will be the Dream Team of British actors in their 60s and 70s, headed by Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy.

Tony:  Seriously – the cast is phenomenal.  It’s also a re-teaming for Judi Dench and director John Madden, who worked together on “Mrs Brown” and “Shakespeare in Love” (for which Dench won an Oscar).  In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Dench credited Madden and Harvey Weinstein with causing her success on the big screen.  Madden had cast her in “Mrs Brown,” which was originally intended for television and Weinstein decided it deserved to be a theatrical film.  That said, any one of those four names are likely to make a film worth considering and all four of them put the film on another level.  Which isn’t to diminish the importance of the rest of the excellent cast.

Malcolm: The standard cultural misunderstandings ensue: the place is run down, the country is hot and loud, and the spicy food sends everybody scurrying to the bathroom. Dev Patel – the young Tom Hanks of Indian crossover cinema, made famous in “Slumdog Millionaire” – runs around trying to keep everyone happy and his crumbling hotel intact. Differences are overcome, obvious epiphanies are reached (though sometimes a bit too easily), smiles abound and you’re reminded sometimes it’s better to leave a theater with a smile on your face.

Tony: Patel started out on the British television series “Skins” which was controversially adapted for US television by MTV.  The problem being that 16-18 year olds in the UK, the age group depicted on the show, are generally far more independent than their US counterparts, often more like college students than high school students, sometimes living alone and already over the age of consent.  In short, the content was more shocking to US audiences that tend to shy away from depictions of sex and sexuality more than European audiences.  But even in that context, Patel’s character was dealing with culture clashes as the son of a devout muslim family in Bristol, England – although still very much a young English kid.  So it’s interesting to see him now as the host of a reversed cultural immersion story, with English sensibilities being immersed in Indian culture.

Malcolm: A couple things did stand out to me in “Marigold.” First, the film does make a nod towards larger cultural and economic trends. Patel’s young love interest works at a call center, and Dench’s character gets a job teaching them how to talk to British retirees (I could have used a similar course before recent volunteering for campaign phone banking). Another character is a member of the “untouchable” caste—and we see the two rooms where she lives with about 17 other people.

Tony: Yes – while you expect to see much being made of the cultural difference between the British retirees and their Indian hosts, the more meaningful illustrations are of the differences and expectations within Indian society.  And while the retirees are, for assorted reasons, shorter on cash than they might like, they are still economic scales of magnitude apart from their new neighbors.  The exception to the whole depiction of culture shock is Tom Wilkinson’s Graham, who grew up not just in India but essentially just down the street, and who is eagerly attempting to rediscover a lost youth and an even more lost love.

Malcolm: Second, the distasteful characters were all women. I don’t usually think much about this subtle anti-male sexism that one often finds in movies, but compared to real life, where horrible personalities are distributed approximately evenly between the genders, it seems like men more often take on the nasty roles in movies. While not without their faults, the four male leads are all portrayed as good people—even the aptly (for this role) named Ronald Pickup, an septuagenarian horndog who comes east in hopes of reviving a moribund sex life.

Tony: That’s an interesting point because, on the one hand, it seems like it favors the male characters.  But, on the other hand, it perhaps also allows for greater character development for the females – where weighty females roles, especially for older actresses, are often sadly nonexistent.  And, amongst all of the cultural references and amusingly rushed trips to bathrooms, this is a project that’s largely defined by an entire ensemble’s worth of character studies.  They’re all interesting and often flawed people, products of their respective times and places – and all in need of being themselves, rather than being some combination of stereotypes or the reflections of others’ expectations of them.

Malcolm: And the whole premise is based on an idea so plausible you have to wonder if it’s becoming a real world trend. That is, Europe is filled with crowded countries with aging populations in need of care, while the third world is filled with young people who need jobs. Most discussion of the problem involves bringing the latter to the former, but India looks a lot more like Florida than London does.

Tony: It’s not just retirement living – Smith’s Muriel is initially motivated to travel for the relative speed and affordability of surgery.  Healthcare related tourism is a whole different phenomenon that has been around in some form or other, and in different quantities, for decades (or millennia, if we go back to the Romans’ propensity for distant spas and hot springs).  And given that the US has what is generally considered to be some of the most expensive (and not necessarily the best) healthcare in the world, one has to wonder whether this is something that we will also see more of.  There are already colonies of ex-patriot retirees who pick friendly locations in Central America and Europe, often predicated upon the availability and affordability of health services.  Will we see more packaged surgical holidays and vacation procedures?

Meanwhile, it’s worth pointing out that amidst all of these cultural cues and opportunities for classic “compare and contrast” exercises, it’s also simply a beautiful film, filled with rich characters, well-meaning humor, and copious quantities of fine acting.  But then again, they had me at Judi.

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