UK Release Date: 7th September 2018
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: Marc Turtletaub
Writer: Oren Moverman, Polly Mann
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman, Austin Abrams, Bubba Weiler, Liv Hewson
Synopsis: An exhausted housewife finds a new direction when she answers an ad from a man looking for a competitive jigsaw partner.
In an early scene of the new drama film Puzzle, there’s a moment in which Kelly Macdonald spends part of her own birthday party trying to reassemble a plate that has accidentally been smashed by her husband. There is, of course, a piece missing. It’s a sickly, unsubtle image that pretty much sums up the tone of what’s to come in this odd beast of a movie. The X-factor, though, is Macdonald in one of the best performances of her career and a rare opportunity to flex her considerable acting muscles as a leading lady.
She plays Agnes, who has spent her adult life committed to caring for her husband Louie (David Denman) and their two children – one of whom works in Louie’s auto repair shop, while the other is on the cusp of heading to college. She is becoming increasingly detached and unhappy, lacking any sort of meaning in her life until she is gifted a jigsaw puzzle and discovers she really enjoys it. There’s a thrill to watching Macdonald’s face change as she moves from piece to piece, concluding with a satisfied grin on the final piece.
Her enjoyment drives her to make a rare excursion out of the house and into the big city, where she visits a specialist puzzle shop. It’s there that she finds a notice placed by competitive puzzler Robert (Irrfan Khan), who is looking for a partner ahead of an upcoming doubles competition. Agnes timidly gets in touch and begins to meet Robert for lively, flirtatious practice sessions, while her home life continues to stagnate.
Macdonald’s performance sits calmly at the centre of the movie, holding everything together. She is initially restrained to the point of being near-pathetic, as if years of life within the walls of her own home have suffocated all of the energy and curiosity from her life. This is a woman who exists solely in service of others and that has worn her down. Macdonald plays this role to perfection, with a rock solid American accent and an enormously anachronistic relationship with technology. Only a woman whose life basically stopped 20-30 years ago could swear off smartphones because it’s like “having an alien robot friend” in your pocket.
Puzzle knows how much of an asset Macdonald’s performance is and so cleaves tightly to her perspective. When the movie first introduces Irrfan Khan’s bachelor, it’s very much through Agnes’s eyes that the audience sees his slightly creepy, cavernous home, funded by the one successful invention he pulled off a very long time ago. Khan turns up the charm pretty quickly, though, and the two of them have an obvious intellectual chemistry – a crackle of energy that Macdonald initially files away with all of the other emotions she’s repressing. When her feelings finally begin to explode out, there’s a catharsis to the third act and Macdonald somehow finds yet another gear into which her performance is able to click.
Unfortunately, though, the rest of the film around Macdonald is a little too quaint. The puzzle gimmick itself flits in and out without ever becoming the central metaphor suggested by that opening scene, as if the movie isn’t quite sure how quirky it wants to be. It’s a remake of an Argentinian movie from a few years ago and it plays as if screenwriters Oren Moverman and Polly Mann wanted to tell a completely different, unrelated story about a mother forced to repress everything. With Macdonald at the centre of everything, though, the story they do tell is just about good enough for a recommendation.
Pop or Poop?
There’s not a particularly huge audience for Puzzle, which takes its pretty straightforward tale of a woman desperate for her life to change and adds the slightly distracting gimmick of the competitive jigsaw world. Rather than making the gimmick mean something, the movie just sidelines it until its necessary to the plot.
Thankfully, though, Puzzle benefits from the terrific Kelly Macdonald in a role that might amount to the best performance of her career. She’s good enough to lift the whole thing by several notches.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.