My daughter mentioned very casually that Mark Kermode, film critic, found The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ‘charming’, and that there had been some heated dissent from his listeners on Radio 5.
As I suspected, this film, like all well-directed, well acted feel-good films, seduces and charms. I do not wish to deliberate on this film but to examine Kermode’s comments on it, and advance my understanding of film reception.
In his radio show Kermode was very open. He said: “I went into it full of all the prejudices that you might expect after the posters, the subject matter, etc… It would be terribly twee and ordinary. It is a matter of Ladies in Lavender issue…” He goes on describing how his expectations were confounded by the acting, the script, the direction. “I was genuinely charmed”. His review was highly criticised by some of his listeners. In the next programme, in response to them he reinforces his opinions by comparing the film to Ladies in Lavender again and saying: “It is the Saga market, once you get over the…pre pre…”Here he falters and look for a word that he cannot find – his co-presenter rescues him jokingly with ‘pre titles sequences’ when I think he must have looked for preconceptions. ” I confess that I thought it is not a film that is going to work for me. It is for a market that I am not part of.” He reiterates what he said the previous week about the script and the direction and the cast and the acting. “All characters have a clearly defined arc. They all go through a series of changes. They are all played very well by actors given the chance to play characters of their age who are not boring and making interesting life changing decisions.”
In reply to his critics Kermode argues that it often happens that after viewing a film that you liked you can find many reasons for you not to like it but what is important is that the film works. I would argue that the film ‘worked’ for Kermode, because his underlying ageist expectations were pleasantly unfulfilled. He openly declares his prejudices: the Saga market, the subject matter, boring old people.
As mentioned in a previous post Peter Bradshaw also uses Saga to refer disparagingly to old people. What does Saga imply for these film critics? A bunch of undifferentiated boring old people. But it is surprising that Kermode, who often challenges the cinema establishment, uses the term ‘Saga market’ that he is not part of, without even a hint of self questioning. Kermode is surprised that retired people have a life, or even can be interesting. I would argue that he found the film charming because his expectations were not fulfilled, and this effect is one of the pleasures of cinema going. I would argue that this pleasure obscured the flaws of this film as expressed by some of his critics.
The dissenting listeners accused Kermode of missing the numerous issues raised by the film. They found that the film was “dire bilge, with an appalling script with gaping holes”, that we are expected to sympathise with these horrible middle class people, their first world problems and their general ignorance outside their sphere existence, and that their life changes consist of patronising the locals, Brits abroad stereotypes … and more. Sentiments that I would generally agree with.
I wrote that I would not waste my time researching the reviews for this film or studying it in detail but as I read the Guardian I came across this very telling paragraph by Philip French: “Provided they don’t mind being patronised and stereotyped by a shallow but not wholly untruthful film, then this target audience will be satisfied.” Philip French also feels that there such a thing as a target audience of undifferentiated old people as opposed to a general audience he is part of. Well I do feel patronised not only by the film but by the critics too. I and a lot of my film loving friends belong to a generation of cinema goers for whom film viewing and debating was the major cultural activity. We may go on Saga holidays too and resist the image of retired people abroad given by the film.
I will conclude by saying that Stuart Hall’s analysis of the reading of media texts is very applicable in this situation. The dominant strategy is reflected by the box office returns of the film this week. Kermode and people I know are quite happy to accommodate the flaws of the film. Some of us resist it.