Saturday, June 9, 2012

Life As A Sardine

A short break from the travelog for… a movie review!


One of the big gaps in my travel experience is India; I've never been there. I have the visa, since it's one of the places my current airplane has visited historically, but my coming to the airplane three years ago coincided with a shift of most of this flying to another fleet. So though the MD-11 still on occasion stops in Mumbai, it hasn't done so on my watch.

That's a shame, since the place looks so intriguing. Susan spent a couple weeks there a few years back, but I think the culture shock was simply too great for her. Well, that and the dysentery. The abject poverty, the unbreakable caste system, the complete absence of sanitation, the unbelievable crush of people everywhere; the trip was rather sudden and unexpected, and these things were too much to take in without some preparation.

I trust her judgment on these matters, though I think we don't always respond to situations similarly. So her bad experiences are not a guarantee of a similar reaction in me, I think. Add to this the almost universal condemnation of the place by my coworkers who have flown there, and I begin to think I'd like the place. (I say *almost* universal; a few pilots I've talked to who have flown in there say the place is really magical, and they tend to be much more my kind of folks apart from this.)

This is all backdrop for my response to John Madden's recent film, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. A young man, Sonny (Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel) has inherited a crumbling hotel in Jaipur from his dead father, and Sonny dreams of making the place into a haven for retirees. The unlikelihood of this scheme coming to pass is no deterrence to Sonny whatsoever.

From a variety of circumstances, a group of Brits in their golden years converge from their myriad points of the British Isles onto this dilapidated spot in North central India, hoping to find a solution to a problem or a grand final adventure or release from a bad memory or an atonement for a past sin. We learn a bit of each of their circumstances at the beginning of the film, as we see each person (or couple) grappling with something for which Sonny's hotel will eventually pose a possible solution. But from these skeletal introductions, as in life, we see what inner stuff is released by the stresses and wonder of travel. Some folks are reluctant travelers, seeing and feeling only what they have lost or what isn't there, while others blossom like flowers in the fertile soil of diversity and adventure. And the backdrop for it all is the crumbling, but still intriguing, Marigold Hotel. The trailers for this film have a bit of a Wes Anderson feel, a feeling of quirky, poignant comedy with exotic adventure in the mix; and that's about right.

There are, of course, a bunch of individual stories, and I won't bother to detail them. Suffice it to say that they each pose a strand of a larger rope, and director Madden has cast superbly. Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench, the invaluable Tom Wilkenson, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton--you can't help expecting something delicious from such a collection of talent.

I've read a few slightly tepid reviews of the film (along with some glowing ones), and there are criticisms to be made up to a point: the story is more build-up than payoff; it focuses on a rather bleak view of retirement; some stories are a touch cliched. Fair enough. But to my mind this is really a film about two things--travel and old age--both of which in their very bone marrow touch the profound. We live in an aging world, especially in America, and old age and the end of life are simple (if awesome) facts of life. There are, we must admit, very many of us for whom our "golden years" will not unfold as we planned; yet these years are part of our lives as much as any other period, and how we respond to these challenges and hardships says something quite fundamental about our character. Travel, as alluded to above, is not everyone's cup of tea--and I daresay the non-traveler might not get much out of this film. But for others of us, there is something profoundly energizing about the other-ness of a foreign place. And for a Westerner, India is fundamentally other. Like plunking an Iowa farm widow down in the middle of Times Square, India poses a herculean challenge to this group of Brits, and most of us will see something of ourselves in these folks. For we who love to travel, the immersion alone is worth the price of admission.

I was quite sold by the experience. These felt like people I'd like to get to know, and India in John Madden's hands seems like a place I, anyway, would like to visit.

Grade: B+

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