Having dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith reunited onscreen is always a treat. But the fact that the movie they're starring in—along with Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy, and other seasoned performers—is a rom-com travel movie with the ungainly title, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, that took them to the chaos and beauty of India as they explore the loves and losses of their lives may seem even more of a stretch. But the film is a heartwarming and inspirational must-see. As a recent traveler to Jaipur, I felt like I was experiencing much of the overwhelming beauty and chaos—while also seeing amazing actors stretch their legs.
Although Meryl Streep has made a comeback by starring in roles that celebrate sexuality in an older generation (including the upcoming Hope Springs), it remains rare to see men and women engaging in romantic exploits once they are in their later years. But the film, which opens stateside May 4, and directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), has already proven to be an unlikely phenomenon with both older audiences as well as people who are looking for feel-good family entertainment (it's the perfect film to see with your mom or grandmother—or mother-in-law), racking up over $70 million in foreign ticket sales.
In Marigold Hotel, a group of British retirees are fed up with their feelings of uselessness back home so they decide to embark on an Indian fantasy life, where a hotelier promises more bang for their pensioner's buck. The proprieter ends up being a bit of a well-intentioned huckster (played by Dev Patel), and the all get a crash course in the chaos of their new home city. Dench plays a widow looking to reinvent herself; Smith a cantankerous bigoted old crone who learns to be more open-minded.
"Am I going to be able to manage this?" Dench said when asked about the complications of filming in India. "What worried me the most was the incredible wealth and also the incredible poverty. That I wasn’t going to be able to easily come to terms with that."
Wilkinson turns in a great performance as a gay man who returns to find his first love, an Indian man from his youth spent in Jaipur. Wilton, now with new Downton Abbey fans on her side, is a complicated character who struggles with her attraction to Wilkinson while dealing with her own marital problems.
When asked whether he felt it was a brave choice to play a older gay gentleman (something Christopher Plummer recently did to great acclaim), Wilkinson replied: "No I didn’t. I thought it was a wonderful role. I was happy to take it on. I thought it was a very well-told story of his character and it fit in very nicely to the story of the movie as a whole." He also said he would have done a similar role 20 years ago if it had been offered to him.
As Dench explained: "I don’t think I would have the courage of Evelyn. I would like to think that I would. I like the fact that all these characters, for one reason or another, decide to do it. That they’re hoping to find some kind of answer to something they’re asking."
The gorgeous Tena Desae is making her English-language film debut—she's quite exposed in one bedroom scene with her co-star Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire)—and was frank when asked about her onscreen kiss with Patel: "I was freaking out. It was my first kissing scene and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I finally went and did the scene, and it wasn’t a big deal. I was freaking out for nothing."
Watch the full video of interviews, with scenes from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, below.