PUZZLE. US, 2018, 103 minutes, Colour.
Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman, Austin Abrams, Bubba Weiler.
Directed by Marc Turtletaub.
For the most of the time this is a rather quiet film – but it builds up a great deal of interior momentum, surfacing doubts, fears, angers.
The puzzle of the title is actually a jigsaw puzzle (and it is a remake of a very sympathetic Argentinian film of 2009, Rompecabezas). The setting this time is Bridgeport Connecticut with excursions into New York City.
The central character is Agnes, a sympathetic Kelly Macdonald, married for almost 20 years to Louis, who works in a garage (David Denman). They have two children, the older working in the garage but wanting to be a cook, and the younger preparing to go to college but wanting a gap year in Tibet with his Buddhist girlfriend.
What could be likely to happen in this family, especially with Agnes who has lived the life of a subdued housewife (taking it for granted), mother, church worker (with some scenes at the church, comments about lessening crowds for confession, receiving and wearing the ashes on Ash Wednesday)? Louis is a man who has lived an enclosed life, moving from home to garage to home, his hobby of fishing one of the most important things in his life, never watching the news, thinking his older son is lazy because he dislikes working in the garage, wondering about his younger son and his going to college.
There is a telling sequence at the beginning where Louis clumsily breaks a plate at a birthday party while Agnes is working and cooking – and the audience then discovering it is Agnes’s birthday party – and Agnes searches for the pieces to put them together again. This prepares us for her response to one of the gifts, a jigsaw puzzle. She finds that she can put the puzzle together very quickly, feelings of exhilaration and achievement.
When she goes into New York to buy some more puzzles, she finds a number to text, someone wanting a puzzle partner. In a moment of daring, she texts and receives a reply. Without telling the family, she goes to New York to meet the partner, Robert (an inventor played by Irrfan Khan). She is very tentative, rather prim, not realising she is intrigued by Robert and his personality, way of life. They are very successful in working together at the puzzles – and he enrols them for the championships.
What will happen to Agnes in this opening up of her life? Will she tell her husband or not? How will she deal with her sons and their hopes? What if she persuades Louis to sell their holiday home and property to fund their sons? What if she becomes emotionally involved with Robert?
These are the many questions which we would expect to be raised by the screenplay – and they are. We empathise with Agnes. We hope that Louis will change. We wonder what influence Robert will have on Agnes.
From quiet beginnings, serious questions, serious emotions, serious moral decisions.
This is a film about the lives of ordinary, very ordinary people – which most audiences could identify with, empathise with, even learn from.
Sony Pictures Classics Released November 29th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.