I only just got to watching it the weekend before last at the swanky Crosby Hotel which hosts its very own Film Club every Sunday. (I even spied Spider Man v.1.0 Mr Tobey Maguire in the lobby!). Just as with its first, I have to hand it to John Madden, Judi Dench, Lillete Dubey & co. for making a thoroughly predictable film aping Bollywood tropes and focused on India’s exoticized ability to help old white people learn about aging, not only enjoyable but surprisingly melancholy.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the film’s handling of Muriel Donnelly, Dame Maggie Smith’s character, and especially her ending (obviously, SPOILERS ahead). At this point in her career, Smith has arguably become a parody of her own self. And yet, that's harder to say if you actually watch her work. Sure, she’s got the grouchy old bitter hag thing spouting prickly witticisms down pat, but there’s always something else lurking in the quiet moments in her performances. There’s a weariness married to a nimble sense of emoting that goes on behind those weathered if sprightly eyes. That's put to best effect in the final moments of Madden's film which gives us the happy ending we always knew we'd get but spiked with an ambivalent sense of loss:
It makes sense that the heavy lifting (read: the dramatic and non-comedy-of-errors part of the film) would fall on Smith's sturdy shoulders; she can turn even the slightest of complaints about tea into resonant character bits, commentary on US/British relations and even a meditation on her own sense of mortality.
As soon as we left the 90-seat theater at the Crosby (I did say it was swanky, yes? what with its free popcorn and all) my friend asked “So, does she die?” which seemed to be both the type of obvious question I usually hate (“did the top stop spinning?!”) but which seemed precisely the right one to ask, especially if one follows it with “will she kill herself?” a melodramatic, though not for this film, inappropriate question.
We feel the weight of Mrs Donnelly’s life and it somehow strikes me that the film’s ambivalence about her demise, even amidst an ending that ties everything else in a pretty bow is rather transgressive and pretty much all wrapped up in Smith's final close-up which ends the film.