Walter Mencken 11 a.m., May 24
Downton Abbey vs. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: A Tale of Two Actresses
Like millions of others, I’m hooked on Downton Abbey, the deliciously sudsy TV series about an aristocratic family and its servants in early 20th-century England. That Downton’s third season doesn’t begin on PBS until January of 2013 is a deprivation, even a source of desperation.
We love Downton, need Downton, and don’t want to be without it. So we are compelled to seek consolation elsewhere.
Enter The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, now playing in San Diego and other U.S. cities. Heavily promoted by PBS, the film focuses on a modern-day group of British retirees at a shabby Indian hotel. And the cast includes Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton, two superb actresses from Downton.
How do Smith and Wilton fare at the Marigold Hotel? Are their onscreen characters similar to the ones in Downton or are they exploring different dramatic territory?
Here’s a comparison.
Downton: Smith portrays Violet Crawley, the Countess of Grantham and mother of the Earl. As the family’s reigning matriarch, she an amusingly feisty symbol of old values in a rapidly changing society.
Marigold: She’s Muriel Donnelly, a former servant who arrives in India with a bad hip, racist attitudes, and a working-class accent.
Downton: In terms of fashion, the countess is unabashedly old school. Her elaborate outfits resemble something from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. And yes, she has a hat for every occasion.
Marigold: Forget the hats. Smith’s character likes casual, cotton-y clothes suitable for India’s hot climate. After Downton, it’s a shock to see the actress in slacks. She also spends much of the film in a wheelchair.
Downton: If there were such a thing as a wit-ometer, measuring witty writing, the family matriarch would score high. She has some of the sharpest lines in the series. Smith delivers them masterfully, as when she states: “I have plenty of friends I don’t like.” Or when she sees a new telephone and asks: “Is this an instrument of communication or torture?”
Marigold: If not as clever as Downton, the script is sometimes snappy. Smith’s character explains that she’s too old to plan ahead, adding “I don’t even buy green bananas.” She sums up her opinion of Indian food by stating “If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t want to eat it” (which sounds like something the countess would say).
Downtown: She portrays Isobel Crawley, the take-charge mother of the presumptive heir to the estate. Progressive and outspoken, she supports the downtrodden.
Marigold: She’s Jean Ainslee, the take-charge wife of a former civil servant (Bill Nighy). Unlike Downton’s Crawley, Ainslee is a snob. Don’t be fooled by her bright, brittle smile. This is a complicated and conflicted woman.
Downton: Crawley has a fashion sense that’s stately without being fussy.
Marigold: Ainslee strives to look upscale and serene. She doesn’t always succeed, largely because of the humidity and her own unhappiness.
Downton: She’s willful but often well-meaning, as when she urges her son to pursue the woman he adores.
Marigold: She’s willful and sometimes mean. During an argument with her patient and long-suffering husband, she snarls: “When I want your opinion, I’ll GIVE it to you!”
Speaking of opinions, Reader movie critic David Elliott has reviewed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Want to check out his review? Go ahead and click here.
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