“When you complete a puzzle, you know that you have made all of the right choices.” These words are delivered by Irrfan Khan’s puzzle-making champion Robert. Life, on the other hand, is not as clear cut as a freshly finished puzzle.
Thus is the crux of Puzzle, the Marc Turtletaub-directed adaptation of Natalia Smirnoff’s 2009 film Rompecabezas. And it really does rely on the metaphorical links between puzzle-making and life to make its case for personal liberation. In it, Kelly Macdonald plays Agnes, a full-time housewife who spends most of her time in solitude. When not shopping or at Catholic church group, she is at home tending to her husband Louie’s (David Denman) needs.
Louie is a blue collar mechanic with antiquated concepts of domesticity vis a vis gender roles. He speaks of Agnes’ good graces, but cannot even imagine her doing anything for herself.
When Agnes starts making puzzles, and when she ultimately decides to compete with Robert in the national championship, she has to hide such an innocent hobby from her family. Eventually, through puzzles, she learns to do things for herself rather than only act for other people’s benefit.
It sounds like a kooky premise, putting so much stock into a simple game, but it works fairly well. I mean, for a movie entitled Puzzle there is very little puzzling involved. But Macdonald sells the transformative nature of the hobby better than anyone. She has a way of showing pleased emotions on her face that are clearly just for her. They sneak in, she acknowledges them, and then they recede again.
Macdonald’s performance is the driving force in the film. Everything else is rather pedestrian, especially the way in which her dreams and aspirations are drawn. Aside from the stereotypical depiction of her lifestyle and the one-dimensional nature of the rest of her family, her ultimate desire is a tad too quaint for what the film is trying to say about domestic freedom.
Without giving this denouement away, it is worth noting the awkwardness by which it is hinted at early in the film. Of course, they link it to puzzles. And Agnes’ skills in puzzles clearly point in a concluding direction that makes sense for the character. And yet…
The character study at play in Puzzle is quietly compelling. Macdonald makes it all the better. But the drama surrounding this character study comes off as trite. Domestic malaise. An expansion of religious understanding. Confronting an ignored technological world. Disparate conversations that would be suitably explored on their own, but are merely introductory concepts here. They are concepts used to populate Agnes’ world so that she has something to escape from and something to learn from.
The drama isn’t properly extrapolated on, either. Agnes’ sons both have conflicts of their own that directly involve Agnes, but we never truly understand them as people. Same with her puzzle partner, who winds up playing a key role in her arc. The film exists inside the bubble of Agnes. That’s all the film needs, until it asks us to care about these other figures.
Puzzle is an insular drama with an interesting protagonist. It probably isn’t the film that will prove to the world that Kelly Macdonald deserves to headline more projects, but she is the saving grace in an otherwise (somewhat) tedious film. In short: you’ll be surprised how much you’ll wish there were more puzzles.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)