When you’ve watched films for close to fifty years, you occasionally get to see a performer’s entire career play out in front of you. Sometimes it’s painful (Jon Voight), sometimes it’s funny (Jack Nicholson), and every once in a while it’s a privilege (you).
To be clear The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is hardly the best showcase for your work. A meandering, often incoherent mess, it is a film that lurches from moment to moment without a whole lot of intention.
There is a trifling contrivance about the necessity of obtaining a second hotel (ostensibly to house the incipient hordes of adventurous, elderly British ex-pats of reduced circumstance) to compliment the first hotel, but the title kind of says it all. This is definitely the second best Exotic Marigold.
The first film—simply titled The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—was a clever, engaging piece of entertainment. But in this iteration Dev Patel is carrying far too much narrative weight and screen time for a character that is so thinly drawn. Nor is Patel is good enough to transcend the material. As for most of the rest of the cast—which includes Richard Gere and David Strathairn—they seem happy just to collect their paychecks and wander around Jaipur.
However, when either you, Maggie Smith or Bill Nighy are on screen something truly alchemical happens; lead is in fact turned to gold. It really is magical to see. I think it has something to do with simple professionalism as well as talent. There is never a moment of sloppiness or mugging for the camera. I believe absolutely everything you and you fellow Brits say. And given the thinness of this script, that is high praise indeed.
Just a glance at your resume is enough to see how varied and challenging your career has been. Those choices also speak to a fundamental strength that many UK actors possess.
Theatre actors, especially Shakespearean theatre actors, cannot take a moment off. That continual awareness is often painfully apparent, especially in contrast with people who turn off the moment the camera pivots away from them. There are several moments throughout The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel when you seem to be acting in an entirely different film than most of the rest of the cast.
The few scenes where you and Maggie Smith get to share the screen together are particularly worthwhile. Not for any De Niro-Pacino type pyrotechnics but simply for the joy of watching two absolute masters make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the film is so uneven and directionless. It is as if the Director John Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker figured: we’ve got all of these great people together again—what can go wrong?
As it turns out, quite a bit. Since your long-budding romance with Nighy is reduced to an awkward sub-plot and the rest of the film is filled with far lesser lights, I kept bouncing back and forth between being engaged and then utterly disinterested. Not exactly a great rhythm. This is a film you watch on a lazy Sunday, not something you spend money and time going to a theatre to see.
In a perverse way you, Maggie Smith and Nighy made this film worse, simply by showing how much better it may have been had you all featured more prominently. In particular your performance was a pointed reminder of why you have endured and flourished—while lesser lights have long since faded.
Thank you for a lifetime of beautiful poetry, Dame Judi.