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'Best Exotic Marigold Hotel': From Pleasant Surprise to Box Office Phenomenon UPDATED

Thompson on Hollywood By David Gritten | Thompson on Hollywood May 2, 2012 at 1:34PM

The year’s first British movie hit in the UK has shifted from being a pleasant surprise to a box office phenomenon. The question is whether its adult appeal will translate when Fox Searchlight opens the film stateside on May 4.

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.

This article is related to: Box Office, Box Office, Judi Dench, Fox Searchlight, Fox Searchlight

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.