It is good to be able to have a dialogue with another researcher about films and older women. Claire Mortimer in her blog (http://matrons.wordpress.com) looks at old women in British comedies. I commented about Alive and Kicking (1959) and it is time for me to come back to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)…. It may be because I am not British-born that I found similarities between the two films and that I have a deep dislike for the latter.
Whereas one can be generous to Alive and Kicking and see it as a reflection of social attitudes of the time, I have no patience with the attitudes expressed in the The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Alive and Kicking is a slightly awkward comedy. We have Dora (Sybil Thorndike 77), Mabel (Estelle Winwood, 76) and Rosie ( Kathleen Harrison, 67) three older women who escape from a retirement home because they were going to be transferred and separated. Dora is an upper class woman, Mabel a refined and learned middle class lady and Rosie the thieving, resourceful, working class stereotype.
After a few more or less funny interludes they land on an Irish island the “least civilised and the least spoilt” and appropriate the cottage of an exiled owner who conveniently disappears. The local inhabitants are portrayed as primitive,suspicious, but basically jolly and compliant. The men are fond of a drink and the women good at knitting and singing. Dora has the brilliant idea of exploiting the local talent and organises the whole island’s population to produce hand knitted jumpers to sell to a boutique in London. Everybody works happily. Dora is the manager, Mabel the accountant and planner and Rosie in charge of petty cash and stamps.
It is possible with some good will to see in the friendship between the three women a challenge to the class system. They escape during a royal visit thus kicking against authority. However the stereotypes are very pronounced and never questioned. On the contrary as long as each woman keeps her place cooperation is very productive. On the surface, gender differences are challenged by showing three capable women but at the end of the film the exiled Irish man is back. He takes charge, and allows the three women to continue working . But I do find a mild challenge to ageism. The women escape from a retirement home where they are not respected and refuse to be bullied by matron. The three old women are capable of starting a business but the most striking image of the film is upper class Dora abseiling down a cliff to retrieve some gull’s eggs under the surprised eyes of the children :” you are too old for this…”
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a well produced, directed, acted, sometimes witty, comedy. Its visual appeal is considerable. It was distributed widely with a lot of publicity, and the reviews were very favourable. It is the story of four women and three men who for different reasons, decide to go to a retirement home in India. The hotel turns out to be more attractive in the brochure than in its dilapidated reality and the seven characters have to adapt not only to a foreign country but also to the discomfort of a third class hotel.
I will confine my comments to the female characters only.
Here the class element is not present, the reasons for leaving London are diverse but connected with problems of age: Muriel (Maggie Smith 77) cannot wait 6 months for her hip replacement, recently widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench 77) is left with a legacy of debt and has to sell her house, Jean (Penelope Wilton 65) and her husband have financed their daughter’s IT business and cannot afford a flat to her liking and Madge (Celia Imrie 59) asked once too often to babysit decides to see the world and seek ‘a tall dark stranger’ .
I will not dwell on the physical appearance of these wonderful actors or on the numerous superficial references to ageing peppered throughout the film but must mention that the shots of Judy Dench’s beautiful face, cropped grey hair, her voice and her stylish clothes in the colourful streets or slums of Jaipur would sell ageing to anybody.
What I would like to point out is that, just as in Alive and Kicking, the empowerment of these women depends on being away from England. Muriel sheds her bigoted racist attitude by being in contact with an ‘untouchable’ cleaner, Madge comes to term with her age, and Evelyn gains an independence that she did not have as a wife. All characters but one adapt to their surroundings in an admirable liberal tolerant way.
As in Alive and Kicking the natives need help. The young hotel’s manager is an exuberant comic character who is in love with a woman of a lower class. His mother wants him to sell the hotel and get married appropriately. But it is Muriel (after a succesful hip replacement) who saves the day by sorting out his finances and securing an investment for him to renovate the hotel. In the last sequences, she is seen, rejuvenated, at the reception desk of the refurbished hotel welcoming the guests.
It is the scene of Evelyn at the call centre that irritates me the most. But then I am sensitive to the patronising attitudes of Britons abroad. I find it difficult to accept the role of Evelyn the English lady lecturing locals who have no business sense. The preposterous idea that the call centre women should engage in a personal conversation with older clients to get their custom strikes me just idiotic and demeaning. But then I rely often on call centre staff to guide me through the maze of the new technologies. As a rule I find them courteous, patient and extremely helpful.
On seeing the film again I note that there is a transgressive woman in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It is Madge who refuses to be seduced by the exotic just as I refused to be seduced by the film. She demands better service from the hotel, hates the spicy food, remains indoors, reading. Her relationship with her husband is grating, she is humiliated by being rejected by the gay judge but she has the best biting lines. It is in her distressed outburst that one can find some truth if one looks for some in this simplistic feel-good film about ageing. “We have to get out of here… the climate, the squalor, the poverty… this whole trip is a grotesque fantasy… we are a group of self deluding old fossils traipsing around as if we were on some bloody gap year… face up to the truth that we are all old, we are all past it that is the real truth, the raw unvarnished fact of the matter… all we are good for now is a beige bloody bungalow with a sunny corner…”. Yes these words are in the mouth of a rather bitter unhappy character. But I cannot but agree with her by transposing these sentences to the film which to my mind is a grotesque fantasy, a gap year. Although the dialogue or voice over is full of optimistic homilies about ageing “the only failure is the failure to try – can we be blamed for feeling that we are too old to change?- too scared of disappointment to start all over again – it is true that the person who risks nothing does nothing – perhaps what we fear is that it will be the same so we must celebrate the changes because “everything will be all right in the end – if it is not all right, it is not the end”. But who are these words addressing? Don’t we – old women – know what it is like to grow old, to start again, to cope with tragic or happy changes, to take risks and shoulder responsibilities, to have fun? Aren’t these words addressed to the fear of ageing of younger people? The film is a pacifier and used to avoid looking with any depth into the real lives of old women.
And why in both films are old women empowered only when they are amongst people less powerful than them? Why does growing old in England means a bullying care home or a beige bungalow but in Ireland and India a wonderful adventure?
Has nothing changed in the 50 years between the two films? Class differences have gone but not British colonial attitudes. Sex and romance interest have appeared in the later film but women’s friendship is replaced by female rivalry. Age is not foregrounded in the older film but the focus of the latter. Cinematically the image of Dora abseiling or shooting and as a manager at a desk directing operations is by far more interesting than Nighy and Dench speeding on a motorbike like the younger Indian couple.
As usual I feel frustrated as there is so much to say about these two films. A Swiss film, Late Bloomers (2006) is also about the liberation of four older women but they at least do not need to leave their village to achieve it.