Marc Turtletaub/ USA/2018/ 103 mins
@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 7 Sep 2018
An adaptation of a popular Argentinian film of the same name, Puzzle is a domestic drama about a woman who discovers a prodigious talent for jigsaw puzzles. What sounds like a distinctly unpromising premise turns out to be far more interesting than it has any right to, focusing as it does on the quiet emancipation of one woman of the type whose tales aren’t often told.
Kelly Macdonald makes the most of a rare leading role with an impressively interiorised performance as Agnes, a housewife and mother in her early forties with a loving yet inattentive husband Louis (David Denham) and two teenage sons who are no more help than her spouse. The extent to which she is taken for granted is established in a lovely opening montage that shows Agnes cooking, cleaning and preparing for a birthday party. It’s only when she brings out the cake and the guests sing ‘Happy Birthday’ that it becomes clear the celebration is for her.
One of the gifts she receives is a jigsaw which she completes twice in one afternoon. This leads her to a specialist store in New York in search of more puzzle and to answering an advert placed by Robert (Irrfan Khan). “desperately seeking” a partner for the national jigsaw competition.
Puzzle succeeds almost despite itself. The central metaphor of the jigsaw being used as the “missing piece” of Agnes’ life, making her more complete is clunky enough, but is at one point actually explained to her by Robert. It’s teeth-grindingly obvious and almost unforgivable given the deft adherence to the show-don’t-tell maxim in the opening sequence. Thankfully the jigsaw scenes themselves take a back seat to the excellence of its two leads. Macdonald and Khan have an easy understated chemistry that is the film’s strongest hand (especially revelatory in the case of Bollywood superstar Khan, coming from a background not known for keeping things dialled down).
Puzzle is also very even-handed about Agnes’ home life. Louis is a lunk, with old-fashioned ideas about a woman’s place in the home, but he’s a fundamentally decent man, and the marriage has simply been eroded by time and domesticity. As such, when Agnes and Robert inevitably decide to see what other pieces fit together there is a greater dramatic friction, even if the film would have broken the mould further by keeping the jigsaw partnership platonic.
A film that works best in its quieter moments Puzzle doesn’t always convince when it aims for bigger emotions, impressing most when it allows Macdonald to carry the dramatic weight and convey the almost imperceptible triumph of each tiny breakthrough. Turtletaub and writers Oren Moverman and Polly Mann also wisely avoid having everything slotting neatly into place come the end. This ambiguity stops Puzzle from being as schematic and ultimately disposable as the jigsaws themselves. A warm and humane film that for the most part transcends its more generic elements, Puzzle is hopefully an indicator of more chewy roles for the recently under-appreciated Kelly Macdonald.