The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: Boomers Take on Aging and Death
"What will you do in the end?" asks the prophet Jeremiah. Sonny, a young Indian entrepeneur has an answer: "Outsource aging to India!" Where they respect their elders and where, instead of a tiny beige flat, your thirty-year civil service pension can afford life in his luxurious hotel. In this movie seven retirees and widows with different baggage and longings accept the offer and fly off to spend their golden years in India. OK, so it turns out to be a run-down, covered-in-dust and peeling-paint hotel. Photoshopping your brochure works better for Sonny than his guests. A fine cast, including Judy Dench, Bill Nighly, Tim Hathaway, and Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton from Downton Abbey, shows us what happens to those who choose to work, love and overcome the losses of relocation and aging and those who choose to stay inside and read a book. What will YOU do in the end? Marigold explores several options. (Spoiler Alert)
Perhaps the saddest to me was Norman (Ronald Pickup). If you have been chasing tail all your life and value the hook-up culture over faithful marriage and family…then, in the end, you get another prescription for Viagra and keep cruising the bars. A new liaison takes Norman to the “top of the mountain.” I would like to see a movie that really follows a man who constantly lies and poses to seduce women to the very end. Past Viagra. Past hooking up. Past using anyone else to use to meet his narcissistic cravings. Given the person that Norman has become, I’m thinking the end would be really bleak.
A more meaningful option: Find work that contributes to others’ well-being. Muriel (Smith) a household nanny and manager dedicated her life to care for a British family. They abruptly dismissed her with a courteous “thank you for thirty years of service.” In India she puts her financial management skills to work to save the hotel. Evelyn (Dench), a wife who couldn’t figure out her cable service after her husband dies, puts her home-maker/care-giving skills to work advising an Indian call center how to talk to Brits. She teaches them to empathize and truly listen, treating their callers with dignity. Her face lights up when the manager counts out hard-earned rupees into her open hand. Her smile and sense of accomplishment remind us that meaningful work is a gift. We work hard. Add value to others' lives. We receive our wages. We are created to work and for work to bring us satisfaction. Muriel and Evelyn’s stories remind us that we don’t find our modern expectations of retirement in the Bible and that while we have the energy, some measure of work that provides value to others is a good end.
In the end, Jean (Wilton, the one with the book), who could not bring herself to site-see with her husband or open her heart to the people or culture of India, leaves her husband behind, berating him for his continuous kindness and loyalty in their long-dead marriage. She returns to England and the comfort of new-found wealth. Circumstantially things work out for her. But her self-absorption surpasses that of Norman. Given the kind of person she has become, so toxically negative and domineering (“When I want your opinion I’ll give it to you!”), everyone breathes a sigh of relief once she’s on the plane. We don’t hold out much hope for a good end for her. Watching Jean reminds us what a precious gift it is for Jesus to transform us. To make us, as we yield to his power in our trials, the kind of person that we long to become. Someone that looks more like Jesus.
Those characters who embrace the culture and others flourish. They find love. Including Grant, the retired judge. And then, the morning after he finally locates his long-lost (gay) love, he dies. The traditional Indian funeral provides the film’s best opportunity to consider Jeremiah’s great question. In Indian custom, the six remaining retirees and widows surround the funeral pyre where Grant’s body burns for hours and hours. Such a sobering close-up encounter with death. Ashes to ashes; dust to dust. Life in these bodies will end one day. Each day we are getting closer…to what? The movie shows us sad, pensive faces but we have no idea how Grant’s death—or their own impending death—impacts these men and women. All that acting fire-power and this scene, like many others, fails to go deep. For all its wonderful humor and characters that do grow and change, we don’t see the real, deep struggle of aging and death.
In the end, unless it happens suddenly, we will mourn the loss of our health. I have struggled hard to overcome the limitations of rheumatoid arthritis. After 25+ years of decline, with answered prayer and surgery I have actually gained over these last few years in mobility and wellness. But probably at some point the pendulum will swing back toward more pain and loss. It will get worse than it’s ever been. And I know how bad it’s been. Like my parents I will have to downsize. Sort my treasures into piles for family, friends and Christian ministries, and let them go. (Oh my prrrecious!) Ultimately we will lose sex and fun outings and meaningful work. Aging and death are not just a part of “the circle of life.” They are a curse. They are the enemy’s doing, the murderer who delights in stealing and destroying.
But thank God we are not left standing around a burning or buried body to wonder What WILL we do in the end? If we know Jesus and have received forgiveness of our sin through his sacrifice for us, then, while we may mourn getting older, we can also anticipate getting closer. Closer to a life brimming with beauty, meaningful work without toil, intimacy built on full trust with no lies or posing. We will live with Jesus! We know that any work done for him will be rewarded. We know that pain and tears will be wiped away. Loved ones restored. It fascinates me how in the big blockbusters Titanic and Gladiator, Hollywood pasted in the Christian ending—resurrection, restoration. But in a movie focused on aging and death…they don’t touch it.
Marigold is Hollywood’s version of aging and death lite. It offers wonderful pictures of trying hard, putting yourself out there to work, to love. But when aging carries us past romance and meaningful work, where are the pictures and stories of hope that resonate with the way the real story ends?
"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil, for You are with me.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Now that's an ending.