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EIFF 2018: Puzzle (2018) starring Kelly Macdonald

N.B. This film is not on wide release in the UK at present. It is showing at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Wednesday 20th and Saturday 23rd June 2018.

A housewife finds her passion

Puzzle is a remake of the 2009 Argentinian film Rompecabezas which was written and directed by Natalia Smirnoff. It stars Kelly Macdonald as Agnes, a housewife living in small-town USA with her auto mechanic husband Louie (David Denman) and her adolescent sons Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams). Her life rarely goes beyond carrying out household chores and helping out at the local church. Her lack of experience beyond her own front porch extends to her lack of realisation that Gabe’s girlfriend’s vegan diet means no chicken or fish.

One birthday, this all starts to change when she receives two presents: an iPhone and a huge jigsaw puzzle. While she shows little initial interest in the former, she manages to complete the latter in practically no time at all. Her passion for puzzling is ignited and takes her to a store in New York City, where she buys two more and sees a poster asking for a “puzzle partner”. She tears off one of the paper tabs at the bottom and uses her iPhone to message the number listed on it. The person on the other end is Robert (Irrfan Khan), an inventor living in New York who is looking for someone to participate with him in an upcoming tournament.

As the relationship between Agnes and Robert develops, the former’s home life and outlook towards the world undergoes some dramatic shifts.

Watch a trailer:

Life as a jigsaw puzzle

For much of its runtime, Marc Turtletaub’s film feels a lot like a companion piece to Jim Jarmusch’s pleasingly meditative Paterson (2016). It’s a slow-paced, observational drama about a person living a remarkably unremarkable small-town life which is suddenly blessed by the realisation of an under-appreciated unique talent. In the case of Jarmusch’s film it was poetry and here it’s jigsaw puzzles. It also features a day-to-day structure which typically begins with Agnes waking up, waking her husband up (inevitably resulting in him asking for five more minutes), making breakfast, participating in one of many Christian holy day celebrations and indulging in her new-found passion for puzzling. As time progresses, her days start to feature her regularly taking the train through to New York. The latter sections have an excited visual life about them that contrasts with the slightly dreary interiors of her home. Here, the camera stares up at the ornate constellation ceiling of Grand Central Station and the towering red-brown buildings outside. While she’s at Robert’s house, the pair put together all sorts of colourful pictures which stretch out in the manner of vast landscapes of possibility.

However, there’s a deeper metaphor here which is ultimately reflected in the story: that of jigsaw puzzles allowing a person to assemble them using their own choices even while the rest of their life falls into uncontrolled chaos. As Agnes begins to see new possibilities, it causes frictions in her relationship with a husband whom she has previously spent all of her days doting on. While the core partnership in Paterson (between Adam Driver’s titular bus driver and his arty wife Laura, played by Golshifteh Farahani) was one close to a state of blissful equilibrium, it soon becomes clear that the one between Agnes and Louie is only held together by familial routine.

While the family dynamic presented here isn’t entirely an unsalvageable car-wreck, it’s still a convincing portrait of one that could very well go that way. Moreover, it’s one where, thanks to the internet and smart devices, the adolescent offspring are more clued up than their parents are about what they want in life. The partnership between Agnes and Robert, meanwhile, has the idealised quality that is lacking in that between husband and wife. However, rather than serving as some fantasy end it itself, it acts more as a catalyst for transformation and chaos.

Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle (2018)

Puzzle is a film which lives largely on its performances. Kelly Macdonald turns in what has to be the finest piece of screen acting I have seen since Oscar season. At the same time, however, it never puffs up into showy or grandstanding award bait. The Glaswegian actress who made her name with Trainspotting (1996) is absolutely spot-on, accent and all, in her portrayal of an unassuming American housewife who yearns internally for something a little more. I accepted her completely in the role and rooted for her quiet quest throughout. Irrfan Khan is somewhat more flamboyant as the eccentric but charming inventor and puzzle fanatic who starts to draw out her inner life. His performance brings a welcome streak of humour but also possesses an air of internal sadness which brings him a genuine human depth. While Agnes’s overly masculinised husband Louie is a more marginal character here, the film doesn’t make the mistake of turning him into a one-note antagonist. David Denman gives him layers of sensitivity behind his hulking exterior which imbue him with a modicum of audience empathy in the face of the radical changes he is seeing in his wife’s behaviour.

You could point out that the storyline follows a somewhat predictable path. However, just like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, the fact that we know what the end result will be doesn’t preclude the fascination in getting there. These ordinary people feel real and complex. We spend time sharing their joy, humour and sadness but Marc Turtletaub never handles it in a forced or overdone manner. The result is a sort of small gem of a film: one which I fear will never find anything like as large an audience as it should do.

Runtime: 103 mins

Dir: Marc Turtletaub

Script: Oren Moverman, based on an original story by Natalia Smirnoff

Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman, Bubba Weiler, Austin Abrams, Liv Hewson

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

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