Film Review – Puzzle (2018)

Puzzle opened this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival and stars one of Scotland’s – nay, Glasgow’s – finest.  Kelly Macdonald.  But anybody expecting a died-in-the-wool Scottish film is going to be disappointed.  This isn’t it.

Adapted from the 2010 Argentinian film of the same name, it’s been uprooted by director Marc Turtletaub along with writers Polly Mann and Oren Moverman and transplanted to the outskirts of New York where Agnes (Macdonald) is the backbone of her family.  Wife to Louie (David Denman) and mother to Gabe (Austin Abrams) and Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) with all that entails, she’s also a pillar of the church but, outside the confines of domesticity, has nothing else in her life.  With her sons about to spread their wings, she realises her life has little in the way of meaning and, by chance, finds something that sparks her interest.  Jigsaw puzzles.  It helps her develop self-confidence and leads her to do things she would never have dreamed of.  And that includes threatening the stability of her family.

When there’s a gaping void in your life – and Agnes certainly has one – finding something to fill it is completely understandable: most people will have done it at some stage or another.  The nature of the activity is almost immaterial: what’s important is the effect it has.  So although jigsaw puzzles sound trite, they’re not – in fact they’re perfect for Agnes.  We see early on how meticulously she puts a shattered plate back together, so she takes to puzzling like the proverbial duck and comes into contact with Robert (Irrfan Kahn) who is looking for a partner for a national competition.  Despite her reticence, it’s exactly what she needs.

Puzzle is a small story – certainly smaller than those 1,000 piece jigsaws – and one of comparatively little consequence.  It boils down to Agnes’ relationships with two men instead of her journey of self-discovery, even though it’s supposed to be about the latter.  It’s as if she can never escape the shackles of domesticity and motherhood, no matter how much she wants to.  She’s married to a man with a traditional view of matrimony – dinner on the table when he comes home, that sort of thing.  That doesn’t make him a bad man per se, just one with a narrow viewpoint that he refuses to give up, and that’s part of the problem.  Puzzle partner Robert is completely different – wealthy, highly intelligent, proud, charming – in other words everything her husband isn’t.

They fall for each other.  If only they hadn’t.  It doesn’t convince and there’s the definite impression that the story would have benefited from their relationship being deep but nonetheless platonic.  The opportunity would have been there to understand the two of them on a deeper level, Agnes especially, but instead the film is saddled with a romantic detour that it doesn’t need.  A very forced one.

The film does benefit from some good performances.  Macdonald slips seamlessly into the American accent she sported in No Country For Old Men, among others, and is suitably ordinary-cum-dowdy but with the potential to blossom.  And she forms good on-screen partnerships with David Denman as her husband, who is difficult to dislike for all his failings, and the more glamorous Kahn.  The scenes where they are working together on puzzles have a ring of truth, but it’s the only time their relationship actually does.

The story feels stretched to the limit.  It could easily have made a short – tighter, more emotional and with a lot of the padding, the romance, in particular, trimmed away to make something more truthful.  As it stands, all the pieces are an awkward fit in what should be a 100 piece puzzle.

Freda Cooper | ★★1/2

Romance, Drama | 15 | UK, 7 September (2018) | Sony | Dir. Marc Turtletaub| Kelly Macdonald, Irffan Kahn, David Denman, Austin Abrams, Bubba Weiler.