Words

Hannah Woodhead

Puzzle – first look review

Kelly Macdonald plays a technophobe with a penchant for solving puzzles in a drama whose pieces don’t quite fit together.

Based on the 2010 Argentine film of the same name, Marc Turtletaub’s Puzzle has a fairly simple premise. Agnes, a meek housewife and technophobe living in Upstate New York, discovers she has a talent for jigsaw puzzles after receiving one for her birthday. Feeling unappreciated by her husband and sons, she answers an ad placed by eccentric inventor Robert, who is seeking a partner for the National Jigsaw Championships. Yet far from providing any insight into the very real world of competitive puzzling, the film itself centres on the metaphorical puzzle of Agnes herself.

As a character study, the film hinges on the performance of Kelly Macdonald, who plays Agnes as a vulnerable woman doing her best. But she alone can’t save the film’s shaky narrative, and there’s a sense from start to finish that Agnes is a tragic character who needs saving from the miserable hand life has dealt her. All the men in her life are unpleasant, with the exception of her eldest son Ziggy, who shares some of Agnes’ unhappiness, having been employed at his father’s auto shop despite having a secret desire to become a chef. Yet this is an unexplored side plot – when Agnes remarks “He’s a really good cook!” we have to take her word for it, because the only time he’s shown cooking on-screen is when he makes the family eggs for breakfast.

Puzzle is more an exercise in telling than showing, which is a pity, since the cinematography is particularly strong. A plinky-plonk piano score adds to the sentimentality, and as Agnes is the only character afforded any sort of depth, it’s difficult to see her husband Louie or puzzle partner Robert as anything other than thinly-sketched outlines.

The film’s attempts to paint a picture of life in middle America are similarly unconvincing. Agnes is a technophobe, suspicious of the iPhone she’s gifted for her birthday, but there’s never any reason given for her aversion to modern technology, or much insight into why she enjoys puzzling so much, besides a vague hint that she might have an undiagnosed mental health condition.

Given Macdonald’s warmth and presence this film really ought to be more charming than it is; there’s just not enough of a story here. Characters make strange decisions, and the jigsaw MacGuffin is a poor metaphor for trying to make order out of chaos.

Published 21 Jun 2018

Tags: Kelly Macdonald Marc Turtletaub

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