“ Puzzle” is a small, honest film without any dazzling scenes. Kelly MacDonald plays Agnes, an unimaginative yet child-like woman, who is slow to find self-expression in anything but keeping an orderly household. The first minutes show her vacuuming the parlor rug. She is readying the house for a party~baking a cake, setting up a banner and balloons. We are surprised it is her birthday, and even more surprised that it is 2018.
We meet her husband Louie, wonderfully played by David Denman, as he accidentally drops his dessert plate, and it breaks into pieces. Agnes rushes to pick up the shards and immediately begins to cement the segments together. There is a missing piece and Agnes gets on the floor searching under furniture for it. Louie doesn’t see the importance. Nor does Agnes see the need for her new I-phone, a birthday gift from her sons. When she calls it her “alien robot friend”, her sons, Ziggy ( Bubba Weiler) and Gabe ( Austin Abrams), tell her she can use it for Bible study and recipes.
Agnes seems most comfortable focusing on what is in front of her. She does not ricochet out of form. The borders and snap of puzzle pieces seem to be her forte. A glass of wine and a 1000 piece zigsaw define her joys.
A gift of a map of the world zigsaw sends her on a commuter train to New York City to seek out more challenges. It is here that she copies a phone number of a puzzle match winner seeking a competition partner. “ I think I might be good at this.” she shyly notes.
Irrfan Khan, who was so wonderful in “The Lunchbox” 2013, reviewed here, plays another romantic, understanding lover. Just like in “ The Lunchbox”, he seems to be adept at appreciating under-appreciated women. Snoring and over-weight husbands beware. The added depth of his fixation on natural disasters is ironic and oddly funny. He puzzles to control chaos.
As Robert, Khan is impressed by Agnes’s speed and adroitness. He won the National Puzzle Competition last year, and hopes to move on to the International Contest in Belgium. “ Let’s see how we work together.” , he enjoins. They practice twice a week at his Manhattan townhouse as his maid serves them wine and tea. Robert tells Agnes that she is modest, funny, beautiful and strange~ the best puzzler I know.” They toast to getting all the wrong pieces right.
Director Marc Turtletaub ( “Little Miss Sunshine” 2006) does a good job with frames of Grand Central Station, and moon-gazing shots where Agnes finds it hard to swallow her own birthday cake. Shots of laundry, grocery , dishes balance with her son’s vegan, Buddhist girlfriend and more literal puzzle-solving. Her repressed Hungarian, Catholic background somehow does not mesh with how easy it is for her to lie. Purposeful slights like not buying Louie’s favorite cheese seem petty. Broadening one’s knowledge and horizons by watching world news seems long in coming.
As her dissatisfaction with her life revs up we are made to see Louie as a sympathetic figure. His role mentor for husbandry has been his dad, and he is doing better than knocking Agnes back to her wifely chores. His “you lied to me like a child” belies the fact that she is treated like one. Menial tasks aside, he tries to please her by selling his fishing cabin to further their sons’ education, but then balks at culinery school as not very manly. At the same time Agnes’ rebuff, “ You denied me like a heartless master!” seems way out of line.
The whole family attends Easter Sunday mass, and the transformative ressurrection theme gets a tad lost. Montreal seems like a stop-gap measure to me, sort of like missing the Women’s Guild Meeting. Belgium, alone, would have been more courageous.
I loved the sound track by Dustin O’Halloran. “Ave Maria” and lyrics like “ Each breath will never reach deep enough” play movingly well. A retro-film, but worthy of your time.