The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, John Madden, 124 mins (12A) Black Gold, Jean-Jacques Annaud, 130 mins (12A)

Check in for sparkling one-liners from a veteran cast – but don't expect anything spicy

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The Independent Culture

If you have seen the poster for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, with its sunny, soft-focus portraits of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson, you're probably not expecting the year's most challenging film. But, to begin with, it looks as if John Madden's comedy-drama – loosely based on a Deborah Moggach novel – might have a sharper edge than that poster would suggest.

In a series of pithy, pointed scenes, it introduces seven pensioners (Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup are the others), all of them appalled by the paucity of options open to them in Britain. Alienated, short of funds, and patronised both by their children and by the operators on their internet helplines, they fly off to a palatial retirement home in Jaipur, the only place where their paltry savings will keep them in the manner to which they're accustomed. But once they arrive, they find that despite the efforts of the optimistic young manager, Dev Patel, the building is in a worse condition than they are. It's hardly a Ken Loach scenario, but the film's opening act has at least as much to say about post-financial-crash retirement as The Full Monty had to say about post-industrial unemployment – which is quite a lot.

After that opening act, though, Marigold Hotel moves closer to the gentle, Sunday evening sitcom promised by the poster: it's Benidorm for the Saga set. Dench's voice-over keeps rhapsodising about how new and different everything is in India, but what we're shown are the usual images of colourful squalor, and streets teeming with children, cars and cattle. The plotlines aren't too radical, either. Each of the characters has their own issue to contend with – Wilkinson's secret past, Smith's bitter racism, Nighy and Wilton's fraying marriage – and the only question is the order in which they'll be resolved. Sure enough, the ex-pats all learn to love themselves, each other, and spicy food, and the pace gets slower and slower until the interminable traffic jam in the closing minutes seems to symbolise the film itself.

That's not to say that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel doesn't deserve a visit. All the way through, it has sparkling one-liners delivered by some of our most distinguished actors, and it's undoubtedly positive in its representation of the over-sixties. It's just a tad ironic that a film in praise of new horizons should settle into such a well-worn groove.

Freida Pinto, Dev Patel's girlfriend both in Slumdog Millionaire and in real life, appears in Black Gold, even though she's an Indian actress and her character is an Arabian princess. And that's not the only bit of casting that will raise eyebrows, and titters, in the stalls. Antonio Banderas and a spray-tanned Mark Strong star as rival Arab potentates; Pinto is supposed to be Banderas's daughter; and Riz Ahmed, a Pakistani-English actor, is meant to be Strong's son. It's amazing that nobody files a paternity suit. Tahar Rahim, the French-Algerian star of A Prophet, is the nearest thing the film has to a bona fide Arab prince.

Still, if you can look beyond a cast that's more United Nations than United Arab Emirates – and that's not easy, what with Banderas's unwaveringly Spanish accent – Black Gold holds up as a respectable attempt at a good old-fashioned epic, complete with a sweeping James Horner score and some impressive camel-vs-armoured-car battle scenes.

It's set early in the 20th century, when Banderas and Strong designate the sand dunes between their respective domains as a buffer zone which can't be claimed by either of them. But when a Texan oil prospector informs them of a sea of oil underneath that very territory, Banderas decides there's no need to take the pact too seriously. He believes that American cash is necessary to bring modern healthcare and education to his people, and a few gold watches to boot. But Strong is adamant that oil drilling is a betrayal of Arabian tradition and Islam itself.

War is soon looming, but it's notable that the film avoids having an out-and-out villain: Strong and Banderas both argue their cases well. The problem is that their debate gets lost in the wearying succession of desert skirmishes and treks that makes up the second hour of the film. Having focused on Banderas up until then, Black Gold abandons him and follows Rahim instead, as he evolves from shy bookworm to all-conquering military tactician. And Rahim is still too callow for that evolution to be credible.

You're left feeling that Black Gold could have been more incisive on the ways in which the Arab world, and indeed the whole world, has been reshaped by the oil industry. But were you to stumble on Jean-Jacques Annaud's film on television on a bank holiday afternoon, it would keep you watching till dinner time.

Next Week

Nicholas Barber gets back to nature with Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd in Wanderlust

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