Fox Searchlight Pictures' The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)

No Country For Old Men

6th September 2013

Clare Finney finds out who’s watching what at the cinema, and why…

It all started with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – or rather, it all started when the big players in the cinema game realised that the section of society they catered best for – young people – was no longer the section of society filling the seats. Far from it. Distracted by gaming, social networking and the knowledge that there was an endless supply available for free if you knew where to look (and from iTunes if you didn’t), teens and twenty-somethings from both sides of the pond had come to see film as something retro at best, redundant at worst – and the figures showed.

In 2010 alone the number of 18 to 24 year olds ‘catching movies’ in the States fell by 12 per cent. In Britain we followed suit, and, with the change in our pockets rattling from the financial crisis, failed to be impressed when they made everything 3D and charged us accordingly. Film makers were perplexed – yet no sooner had they started worrying where their income would come from, it appeared in the form of 50-plus-year olds with time and money still left to burn.

In a behavioural shift that went largely unheeded by the industry at the time (until recently studios did not even test films on 50 year olds), between 1997 and 2008 the proportion of over-45s among regular filmgoers rose from 14% to 30%. Unlike their elders, they didn’t want to consign themselves to cocoa and Countdown upon retiring – they had long, healthy lives ahead of them and they wanted entertaining – but they also knew the value of a good story. They didn’t necessarily want computer animation or special effects. They wanted fully formed characters to whom they could relate and which, crucially, didn’t make them feel ancient or invisible.

Headline Pictures / BBC Films' Quartet (2012)

Fast forward to 2013 and we have, if not a success story, then at least a series of attempts at portraying older people how they might like to be portrayed. In Love Is All You Need, released earlier this year, Piers Brosnan, a widower hosting his son’s wedding in Italy, falls for Trine Dyrholm, a refreshingly optimistic and vibrant cancer survivor and the mother of the bride. Quartet, in cinemas in 2012, portrays the antics of musicians in a retirement home. In their portrayal of age, each of these films follows a similar pattern to Marigold Hotel, in which a septet of seniors find themselves in a charmingly mismanaged ‘retirement home’ in India and must simply make do: they are their own agents, and when they set out to get from their present lives as much as anyone does at any age, they get it: be it love, a job or a deeper understanding of something formerly feared or mistrusted.

Marigold Hotel is far from perfect. The standard clichés of technophobia, racism and raffish old men are still there in abundance. Yet subsequent films have proved it to be a step in the right direction, away from looking at (or overlooking) our seniors through the prism of age, and towards seeing them as people who have as much right to fair representation on the big screen as anyone with smooth skin and tight buttocks. Canadian film academic Sally Chivers wrote in her authoritative study on ageing and film, The Silvering Screen, that movies should be promoting ‘the idea that an old person has a value that exceeds the value attached to young appearance’ In film, she observes, ‘A crow’s foot still signifies the passing of time and symbolises decay rather than improvement’, which is not the case with post-Marigold Hotel films, in which new identities are formed and new romance blossoms. ‘Silver screens’, she writes, ‘value and evaluate the present in relation to the distant past… rarely resulting in a satisfied sense of accomplishment.’ Not so these scripts which, by removing their protagonists to new places and people, puts the focus entirely on the present, and prevents the past from creeping in.

This has its disadvantages, of course: not everyone can retire to India, and while displacing the action has its merits, it also inadvertently suggests that one can only escape the reality of ageing by leaving the country. As Professor Dina Iordanova, Director of the Centre for Film Studies at the University of Andrews, tells me, “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is selling a vision of the British pensioner that is idealised and sweetened, and retirement abroad is not really the object of realistic representation.” Nevertheless, one has to admire any filmmaker who eschews eye candy in favour of a substantial meal, even if it is still a little sugary. After all, this brings us to the off-screen reality of numbers: people liked Marigold Hotel. It grossed £134m at the global box office, and it was, conveniently, popular with those young people still cinema-friendly, as well as with the over-50s. All in all, it left big shoes to fill. The cast was studded with stars, whose long careers on screen (and stage) were so glittering that the idea of them going gently into the good night was laughable. ‘The ongoing influence of the famous among aging boomers – and the latter’s demographic weight – has resulted in a growing number of notable actors remaining onscreen later into their lives,’ Chivers writes. By insisting on central roles rather than bit parts, ‘they do not fit into plots that Hollywood has long produced… [and] gradually, the stories Hollywood tells are also changing.’ Issues of age and time, once mere side dishes to the action, are becoming the main event.

For actress Maggie Smith, it is enough that the stories are changing to consider more mature audiences. “It seems to me there is a change in what audiences want to see,” she says. “There’s an awful lot of people of my age around now.” For Chivers and Iordonova, however, the change is not necessarily for the best. Older actors are appearing more on the big screen, it’s true – but because ageing concerns are so prevalent, their films ‘flourish by tapping into the concerns of an ageing audience’, offering them ‘a reassuring potential future’ rather than a genuine and representative perspective, Chivers writes. “Too many of the films about older people I know are trying to propose 'strategies' to cope,” Iordonava agrees. “I would hope to see a more diverse and less schematic representation, in films that are not so preoccupied with message.” Marigold Hotel, she says, is such a film.

Iordonava and Chivers have a point, and occasionally, as in last year’s art house film Amour, it’s taken. There, old age is starkly depicted through the eyes of an octogenarian couple thrown into turmoil when an attack sends one of them in a rapid downward spiral of ill health. It’s a beautiful film, and the acting by a little-known cast captures old age as a deeply felt, individual experience that cannot be obfuscated; yet in spite, or rather because of this, it is highly unlikely to ever make the mainstream cinemas.

“It’s too depressing” explains British Cinematographer Society member Robin Vidgeon, a seasoned cinematographer. “To survive in the film industry you must draw as many people as possible, and you must entertain them. Amour is great art, but ultimately it’s not going to appeal to a broad spectrum.” Iordanova describes it to me as “an attempt to present new aspects in the 'old age' experience” – but when it comes to keeping cinemas open, Vidgeon says, “you need bums on seats.”

Caught, then, between critical demand for realism and the economic dictates of entertainment, Marigold Hotel manages to occupy a middle ground. It focuses on older people’s issues – retirement, loss, change – but in an amusing, intriguing manner. Its roll call of stars ensures that the characters remain individual and well-rounded, and the acting is of a standard and repute that draws in audiences of all ages. As Everyman’s marketing manager points out, “wonderful performers like Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Clint Eastwood, Bill Nighy and so on constantly do good work. While [they] do represent an older demographic on screen, these actors will always be popular with audience members and generate good business.” In other words, we’re willing to look beyond Bill Nighy’s frown-lines because we know him, and know there’s a lot more to see.

Of course, the most significant lesson older viewers can offer is the importance of story. The generation raised on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, To Catch a Thief, Casablanca and La Dolce Vita knows a good plot when they see one. “They’ve lived life. They’ve read good books, they’ve seen good films, they’re more discerning and selective,” Vidgeon, himself in his 70s, explains. Films can be peppered with great actors and actresses in their 60s, but if the plotline’s empty, the cinema will be too. “I’ve been in the industry over 30 years, and I’ve always said the age and gender of the characters, the place it’s set, the time period, do not matter. It’s the script that counts.” It’s the reason that Best Exotic Marigold Hotel flourished where less well-written films have floundered, and it’s the reason that those films which seek to do well in the older market as well as the young have concentrated on outstanding actors, and captivating scripts.

The Company You Keep, for example – a Robert Redford film due for release in the UK next year – follows a former anti-Vietnam War militant forced to face the consequences of his past, and is expected to do well in cinemas. As a thriller, it’s an unusual genre for the older market, but it ‘satisfies an appetite, especially among mature audiences, for dialogue- and character-driven drama’, (Variety writes), by also being a political action film about the 1960s, with Julie Christie and Susan Sarandon as well as Redford. It’s this that enables it to bridge the gap between the generation that saw the Vietnam war, and the generations whose parents have no memory of it at all.

It’s testimony to the unifying power of cinema that such a broad spectrum of people stand to profit from seeing one good film. But it’s also a very powerful testimony to the contribution that the customarily ostracised ‘baby boomers’ make. “Every week I spend a day at the Met Film School, Ealing Studios, [and] I tell the students about the films they must see,” Vidgeon says. “There’s so many wonderful films out there from past decades which they’ve never even heard of, because of the tendency in the 90s and noughties to aim everything just at young people.”

The entire family used to gather round to watch Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. Don’t we want this to happen again today? Critics such as Iordonaova and Chivers, who argue that the baby boomers aren’t changing the ethos of the film industry enough, have their place – but if the business responds to the fact that, as Maggie Smith characteristically put it, “a lot of grownups would like films for grownups and about grownups” this has to be a good thing.

In the end, you don’t need to make loads of harrowing, artistic explorations of old age to attract the over-50s. You just need to raise the bar.

Find Your Local