No doubt wishing to diffuse any inevitable cynicism, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has been touted by its creators as a ‘companion piece’ to the 2011 surprise hit. While the original Marigold grossed 13 times its production budget, few would deem John Madden’s film worthy of any kind of follow-up. Best Exotic Pt.1 presented a warm take on ageing, its optimistic perspective and surprisingly big heart made all the more enjoyable thanks to its gathering of The Avengers of British Heritage cinema (and Dev Patel). Concluding with its ensemble cosily settling into their twilight years in sunny Jaipur, there seemed little more to say. Madden’s follow-up, which brings back all the surviving members of the previous instalment alongside new arrivals Richard Gere, Tamsin Greig and, in brief cameo, the great David Strathairn. While just as light-weight and watchable as its predecessor, Second Best Exotic unfortunately lives up to its name, with scatter-shot plotting and a lack of narrative drive failing to warrant this extended stay.”
Picking up some months after the first instalment, the main narrative thrust of Marigold Mk. 2 sees hotel co-managers Sonny (Patel) and Muriel (Maggie Smith) sourcing funding for a second Marigold hotel, Sonny balancing this with his preparations to wed Sunaina (Tina Desai). With a flashy competitor in these respective departments throwing both paths into disarray, and the looming threat of a hotel inspector, suspected to be Gere’s Guy Chambers, Patel spends much of the film in a state of anxiety. We soon find that Evelyn and Douglas (Judi Dench, Bill Nighy) still haven’t fully committed to one another, despite the first film seemingly placing a fairly decisive full-stop in their love story. Despite the best efforts of Dench and Nighy, their shared arc never truly convinces in the way did first time around, with various implausible plot devices conspiring to keep the couple apart in a way that feels dramatically hollow and wrung-out.
Meanwhile, Ronald Pickup’s Norman is finding monogamy a difficult concept to adapt to, while Madge (Celia Imrie), faced with multiple wealthy suitors, comes to terms with wanting more than just a trophy husband. As in Pt. 1, both these arcs are very much C-story material, but this fails to excuse the laziness of their execution. While Madge’s taxi-driver romance is slight enough to slip by unnoticed, the ludicrous notion that Norman could accidentally put out a hit on his girlfriend is treated with a strange seriousness, the suggestion of any such dodgy dealings in Madden’s otherwise idealist India jarring with the film’s winsome tone.
Like its predecessor, Second Best Exotic moved at a relaxed pace, stretching its material to a two-hour runtime, and the strained nature of much of the sequel’s drama makes this all the more apparent. The dramatic heart of the first film, exemplified in Wilkinson’s undeniably touching lost-love arc, is intermittently glimpsed through that of Smith’s Muriel. First emerging in Pt. 1 as a simmering racist on a hospital bed, her seismic personal growth renders her the only character really deserving of a follow-up, and Smith brings a pathos to Muriel’s confrontation with her own mortality. She’s used sparingly, yet does wonders to maintain our investment.
For all its faults, Madden’s film is difficult to dislike. The pervasive optimism is as infectious as ever, and Ben Smithard’s lush cinematography paints as idyllic a vision of India as before, sure to once again delight the tourist board. The seasoned cast do well with what they’re given, and for all its reliance on visual tropes and big set-pieces – Sonny’s big fat Indian wedding naturally culminates in a Slumdog-aping dance sequence – it’s sure to delight its target audience. Indeed, whether or not they can come up with anything for its residents to do next time around – a Grey Pound Cinematic Universe cross-over with The Hundred Foot Journey‘s Helen Mirren? – this unlikely franchise looks set to continue unabated.