Based on the synopsis alone—a housewife discovers she has a talent for solving jigsaw puzzles and enters a competition—you’d be forgiven for thinking that Puzzle, directed by Marc Turtletaub, is a quirky, wholesome competition film that fits in nicely with the likes of The Queen of Katwe, Miracle or even Rocky, those age-old tales of the underdog with an unexpected talent conquering life’s toughest obstacles to win it all. They’re favorites for a reason, the way they get us to cheer on the hero, bite our nails with anticipation and celebrate their eventual triumph.
Puzzle will wind up being a favorite, to be sure, but it won’t be because of any resemblance to the formulaic narratives that precede it. Turtletaub, working from a script by Polly Mann and Oren Moverman (which is itself an adaptation of a 2009 Argentinian film), has crafted an unexpectedly moving portrait of strength and self-expression built around, of all things, a puzzle-solving competition (which, a quick Google search tells me, is a real thing.)
Kelly Macdonald, who with any luck will become the star she should be after this impressive turn as Agnes, a repressed housewife coming into her own, carries a film that subverts expectations at every turn, opting instead to focus on Agnes’s internal journey rather than the lazy, prefab narrative of a competition. Agnes is the softspoken wife of Louie (David Denman), a mechanic, and two grown sons, Gabe and Ziggy (Austin Abrams and Bubba Weiler, respectively), who still live at home. As the film opens, we’re at a birthday party, and it isn’t clear until she’s blowing out the candles on a cake she baked and walks out to the dining room herself that it’s her we’re celebrating. Such is the life Agnes leads.
Among the gifts at the party are a new iPhone she hasn’t a clue how to use and a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that, once she’s finished cleaning up after breakfast, Agnes manages to put together in no time at all. Eager to try the feat again, she makes her way into Manhattan to a puzzle shop where she picks up two more, each another thousand pieces. This is our first hint of just how bold Agnes is capable of being; for a woman who’s life revolves, literally, around making sure dinner is on the table when her men get home, it’s quite an undertaking to make a trip to the city on her own.
While there, she notices a flyer advertising for a puzzle-solving partner for an upcoming competition (again, they exist) and snags the number, just in case this newfound talent isn’t a fluke after all. (It isn’t.) As if Macdonald isn’t genius casting enough, the film really comes into its own with the introduction of Irrfan Kkan (The Lunchbox, Slumdog Millionaire) as Robert, the other puzzler who’s in need of a new partner.
Choosing Khan for this pivotal role is doubly impressive. Not only does it place a certain weight on the role, as Khan is as accomplished and capable an actor as any American counterpart, but it adds a much-needed diversity to the cast. To put it bluntly, he is the last kind of man with whom you’d ever expect a woman as vanilla as Agnes to find a connection.
From there, the competition-centric plot comes into play (though never too much). Agnes must sort out how to balance twice-weekly practice sessions in the city with her responsibilities at home as Louie, we learn, is not the type of enlightened spouse who’s just fine with his wife pursuing her own interests at the expense of his clean laundry and warm dinner. There’s a palpable repression in Agnes’s life, from her husband’s innocuous but suffocating expectations to her inability to comfort her child as he confides his pain in her (the distance between them in this anguished scene speaks volumes).
The energy and inspiration she draws from her time with Robert, then, may seem cliched; what she can’t find at home, she finds in this new and exciting world. But Turtletaub draws out of both Macdonald and Khan the kind of honesty that keeps such saccharine potholes at bay. They’re two lost, broken adults of a certain age aching for purpose in a world that tells them they’re long past their prime.
We watch as the puzzle competition draws near and happens, but then again we don’t. There are no countdown practice montages or suspenseful buzzer-beaters here; in fact, we only learn of the outcome of the competition because Agnes, still humble if worlds more self-assured, tells someone of it in a phone call. This refreshing approach to a well-worn narrative template, coupled with captivating performances from both Macdonald and Khan, makes Puzzle a curious thing indeed: that rare kind of film where every piece fits just as it should.
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