- Directed by Marc Turtletaub
- Written by Polly Mann and Oren Moverman
- Starring Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan and David Denman
- Classification 14A
- 103 minutes
Puzzle is a film about a shy Connecticut housewife who discovers she has a freakish talent for assembling jigsaw puzzles, thus overturning her sheltered life and shocking the family that takes her and her domestic labour for granted. That makes it sound like a small, feel-good movie in which a lovable underdog discovers herself, and it is that. But it is also something less formulaic, something subtler and smarter than that description suggests. For starters, it features only a handful of scenes in which the characters assemble puzzles.
The film is based on the Argentinian feature Rompecabezas (written and directed by Natalia Smirnoff), and the adaptation benefits from an understated script by Polly Mann and Oren Moverman. Meanwhile Marc Turtletaub, producer of Little Miss Sunshine, directs in a minor key, hugely assisted by the always appreciated Kelly Macdonald and an intriguing performance from the Indian actor Irrfan Khan. The results are deceptively simple, finding complex emotions in a scenario that only signals sentimentality.
In a dress that literally matches the wallpaper, Macdonald’s Agnes opens the film as an almost invisible presence at her own birthday party. It’s an occasion for which she has baked the cake herself since her mechanic husband and college-age sons are apparently incapable not merely of housework but also of thoughtfulness. Her gifts include a jigsaw puzzle and when she discovers how quickly she can complete it, she ventures into New York to buy another. Her daring trip to a Manhattan puzzle store leads her to Robert, a wealthy inventor who is looking for a new partner for a puzzle competition – because his wife has left him.
Macdonald, who some may remember fondly as the promiscuous schoolgirl in Trainspotting, is now more often cast as the personification of female forbearance, from the loyal wife in No Country for Old Men to the persistent Margaret Thompson in Boardwalk Empire and the sensitive nanny in Goodbye Christopher Robin. She has a delicate but determined ability to describe the power that others, men in particular, hold over her characters, and it’s a delight to see her turning the tables to make the handmaiden the lead.
Khan’s casting as her puzzle partner is a stroke of brilliance: Race is never mentioned here but there could hardly be a wider cultural gap than the one between the eccentric, cosmopolitan Robert, who spends his days lounging around his sparsely furnished brownstone fretting over the natural disasters he sees on TV, and the mousy and devoutly Catholic Agnes, who mainly ventures from her claustrophobic working-class home to attend church functions. Khan plays Robert as an erratically ebullient character, full of exotic flourishes, long faces and deep glances, all of which seem to cover for a discomfort around others just as pronounced as that of Agnes. A scene where he explains to her that puzzling quiets her mind, a consciousness so busy it alienates her from the world, makes it clear that must be its attraction for him too.
That silent revelation is typical of Turtletaub’s quiet direction, which leaves viewers to chew over the characters’ inner lives. Back in Bridgeport, there is a powerful dinner table scene where Louie, Kelly’s domineering husband (David Denman), discovers that his older son doesn’t want to work at the family garage anymore. Instead Ziggy (a miserable youth effectively created by Bubba Weiler) wants to go to cooking school, an occupation his father deems “unmanly.” Hovering unspoken is the audience’s suspicion that there may be more unmanly surprises coming from Ziggy.
Denman plays Louie, the overweight, overbearing working stiff, with insight and humanity, revealing how he loves Agnes deeply but does not see her. His old-school paternalism is keenly observed yet the character is not without sympathy. Similarly, Agnes’s 1950s-style domesticity may be exaggerated but the film is extremely wise about how family duties trap women. How realistic is it to think that Agnes and Louie can escape old roles? Denman’s one false note – or perhaps the script’s – is the moment Louie discovers Agnes’ trip to New York and restrains himself from hitting her by insisting that he is not his father. Who knows how Louie might react to losing Agnes, but the self-awareness seems out of place.
More generally, Turtletaub has some difficulty ending the film, which resolves itself with one too many closeups of Macdonald gazing out at the world, whether from a lakeshore or a train window, as both the script and its director struggle to figure out what happens next.
Neither triumph nor resignation seem quite right for the remarkable Agnes.
Puzzle opens Aug. 10 in Toronto and Vancouver