The year’s first British movie hit in the UK has shifted from being a pleasant surprise to a phenomenon. The question is whether its adult appeal will translate when Fox Searchlight opens the film stateside on May 4.
The movie in question has a grandiose title: "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." It’s a bitter-sweet comedy-drama targeted at over-50 audiences. It doesn’t seem the most promising material for a big box-office hit, yet the film has confounded expectations. On its opening weekend – and older audiences in Britain tend to stay away from theatres at weekends, when they’re packed with teenagers and younger filmgoers – it grossed a hugely impressive £2.2 million ($3.5 million). On the Monday after its Friday opening, it became the number one film in Britain. The gross topped £9 million ($14.2 million) after just 14 days.
Since then, it has gone from strength to strength. UPDATE: It's at $69 million worldwide –and it hasn't hit North America yet.
It’s about a group of British seniors who for various reasons decide to emigrate to Jaipur, India, where the hotel of the title is located; it caters for “the Elderly & Beautiful.” For them, it seems a shrewd, cheaper way to eke out their meager pensions.
The cast is packed with popular veteran British actors in their 60s or 70s. Dame Judi Dench is a recently widowed woman, impatient to make decisions for herself and experience a new country. Another Dame, Maggie Smith, plays a bigoted Londoner who only sets out for India to get a cut-price hip replacement.
Tom Wilkinson is a bachelor High Court judge yearning to return to India, and revisit a love affair he experienced as a young man. Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton play a couple, unhappily married, whose retirement fund has almost diseappeared. Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup are two lonely seniors looking for companionship.
So successfully has "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" played that there’s talk all across the UK media about a revival in films for seniors; the Guardian’s G2 movies and music supplement ran a cover story titled “Silver Screenings: How cinema grew up and found a new audience.”
This is a big claim to pin on one modest movie. Yet the over-50s are an under-served sector of the audience, and many of them have given up on going to movies. Unlike younger audiences who like to see a new movie on its opening weekend, seniors typically wait days, even weeks before committing to see a movie — by which time it’s often been yanked from release.
Reviews for "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" have been mixed. Many critics have pointed to its creaky, contrived plot and its stereotypical view of a ‘colourful’ India, where older people are more respected. Yet director John Madden (who scored a major hit among seniors back in 1998 with "Shakespeare in Love," including the Academy, which gave it the best picture Oscar) has made a film its target audience seems to enjoy hugely, with a classy cast they adore.
On this last note, it’s worth mentioning that Judi Dench is box-office gold in the UK, and has been for a decade now. All films with Dench in a major role have been automatic hits in Britain: "Iris," "Ladies in Lavender," "Mrs. Henderson Presents" and "Notes on a Scandal." (These numbers were diminished stateside, although "Ladies in Lavender" and "Notes on a Scandal" did well in specialty cinemas.) Even more telling is how long these films are held over in theaters, as older audiences gradually discover them.
"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" has also benefited from a timely raising of awareness of a social problem in the UK: the provision of care for the nation’s elderly people, and the importance of treating them with dignity in residential homes. This has recently become a major issue. Three days after the film opened in Britain, a hard-hitting national report was published, criticising the neglect and even abuse of the elderly in Britain’s care homes and hospitals. It made front-page headlines.
In its first 20 minutes, the film portrays Britain as a nation that is disdainful or hostile to senior citizens. Clearly this strand of the story has resonated strongly with older audiences, and Nighy and Dench in particular have been outspoken in media interviews about the way Britain treats its old people.
UPDATE: The film grossed around $31 million by the end of its UK run. That’s well short of last year’s big senior hit, "The King’s Speech" ($70 million) but that title benefited from the huge publicity that accompanies a successful awards campaign. In contrast "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" has done remarkable business from what amounts to a standing start.