"Weeping and wailing, care and sorrow, I knew enough," said the Merchant, "and so does many another who has been married."
So said one of the characters in Chaucer's famed 14th century tale about a motley group on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, thus setting the stage for "frame" stories in literature stories focusing on people involved in an adventure together, who reveal their personalities through what they say and do along the way.
One modern "frame" story, turned recently into a successful Canadian movie, "Strangers in Good Company," continued the device with seven elderly ladies lost in a Quebec wilderness, passing their time getting to know one another through deeply personal life stories.
A more recent film following a similar pattern is "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." It follows a group of British retirees who decide to "outsource" their retirement to less expensive and more interesting India. Enticed by advertisements for a newly restored hotel and bolstered with visions of a new life of leisure, they arrive to find the place, once a palace, now a shell of its former self. Though disillusioned, they settle in and become forever transformed by their shared experiences.
They also discover that love and life can begin again when they let go of their past and accept what the future in a foreign land holds for them.
The frame format is of course not original, but it still manages to perform miracles - especially here because of its exotic setting - yet even more so because it brings together an exceptional cast of high-caliber actors in an ensemble piece, rarely found in movies anymore but featured here as a group of curious characters who play off of each other with curiosity and ease, reminding us just how good they can be when they find themselves strangers together in a strange land.
The film tells the story of seven Londoners, all in search for a better life. There is recently widowed Evelyn (Judy Dench), who decided to do a bit of traveling and winds up with a lucrative offer, and a very fussy Muriel (Maggie Smith) who announces firmly, "If I can't pronounce it, I won't eat it." When Douglas (Bill Nighy) is asked by his wife Jean (Penelope Wilton), "How can you bear this country? What do you see that I don't?" he replies, "The light, colors, smiles; it teaches me something."
Then there is Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a judge who tiring of constant retirement parties decides to return to his hidden past in India and search out a former friend. And, finally, there are Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Madge (Celia Imrie), both on a hunt for a partner, but definitely not suited to one another.
Rounding out the cast is Dev Patel of "Slumdog Millionaire" fame; he portrays the ebullient operator of the hotel with almost too much on his plate - juggling an attempt to restore his hotel to its former glory while dealing back and forth with his girlfriend and his disapproving mother.
Bringing them all together is director John Madden who achieved fame for directing "Shakespeare in Love," in succeeding here in incorporating multiple story lines into a film where all the characters end up getting plenty of screen time to have their tales told.
While all the characters receive ample time to reveal their personalities to us, two actresses shine: Oscar winning Dench brings her usually delightful personality to the screen as a woman trying to figure out what to do with herself now that she's alone. And Maggie Smith, with a long, distinguished, two-time Oscar winning career of her own, is blessed with some of the juiciest dialogue as a racist woman who must resign herself to having an operation performed by an Indian specialist; she delivers much of the humor that lightens the movie's overall mood.
Actually, it's the mix of all the performances that give the film a delightful blend of comedy and drama in equal measures. To top it off, the movie was filmed on location in India, giving it a beautiful look with colorful, noisy, crowded city streets to isolated old world, brightly textured interiors.
The frame tale may not be particularly original, but it's a joy to watch with so much talent on hand to engage the audience for a few otherworldly hours.
"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" can be seen as April's Club Indigo at the Calumet Theatre, Friday the 12th, at 7:15pm - preceded by a buffet of Indian cuisine at 6pm from chefs at the Hancock Keweenaw Co-op (with a few of their friends). Cost for food and film, $19; film alone, $5. Notify the theatre for the buffet before Thursday at 5pm: 337-2610.
Rotten Tomatoes averages: "The Call," C-; "G.I. Joe," D+; "The Host," D-.