The 2018 Edinburgh International Film Festival kicks off with Marc Turteltaub’s Puzzle; the story of a shy and retiring housewife who has her mind opened to new ideas after receiving a jigsaw puzzle as a birthday gift.
People are made up of so many different aspects. These include the normal routine, a job, hobbies, key relationships in life and various responsibilities. It’s also very possible that the different things that define a person don’t add up to anything satisfying. This is part of what this film is about though it’s a lot more complicated than that.
The early scenes set up Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) as a woman primarily motivated by family with a little bit of community spirit thrown in. Her husband Louie (David Denman) is the family breadwinner while she handles the day to day such as ensuring that everyone wakes up at the right time in order to start their day, shopping for groceries and making sure that dinner is on the table every night. She is also active within her local church offering her services to several community activities but beyond that she does very little and seems to be defined by these few things. The banality of that existence is well developed but so is the comfort that it brings. Agnes isn’t unhappy in her life but persists with the feeling that there might be something more to it.
Receiving a jigsaw puzzle as a gift is the turning point as she quickly realises that she has a previously unknown talent for solving complex puzzles very quickly. She keeps returning to that one puzzle because sorting out the chaos in order to make the picture appear gives her a sense of comfort. It’s a break from the family routine and time that she can spend completely alone without the burden of expectation that exists elsewhere.
Solving the puzzle repeatedly awakens a desire to do more so she goes outside her comfort zone in search for different puzzles to help feed that new hobby that she has found. This leads her to team up with champion puzzle solver Robert (Irrfan Khan) who proceeds to open her mind to more self serving thinking that encourages her to forge her own identity outside of her family.
This film really excels in how it portrays the relationships. Agnes’ key relationships are with her husband and two sons. Each of these feel distinct and the quick development of her sons Gabe (Austin Abrams) and Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) clearly characterise them in the context of the film. They both share a handful of scenes with Agnes that establish the baseline for their relationship. The film may not stray too far from what is established but the connections feel both real and lived in.
Her relationship with Louie is a lot more interesting as there is real depth to it. Louie could have easily been portrayed as a suffocating oppressive patriarch who enjoys the convenience of Agnes as his wife without ever truly appreciating her but the film doesn’t take the easy way out and lets the complexity of this relationship form part of the backbone of the film. Louie is a little bit selfish and old fashioned in his outlook on life. He both takes Agnes for granted while also appreciating everything she does for him and the family so it’s not quite as simple as excusing Agnes’ actions as being a richly deserved attempt to escape the thrall of an abusive husband. The complexity of this relationship is greatly appreciated as it shows a confidence to allow both Louie and Agnes to be flawed without compromising what the film is trying to do.
The most compelling thing about Louie is how real he feels. He is consistently characterised as a passionate man who lets his initial reaction get the better of him before considering things more carefully at a later point and arriving at a more understanding conclusion. This happens throughout allowing for some easy conflict that is later tempered by a more supportive voice. This greatly helps with Agnes’ characterisation as the way he initially reacts can be used as justification for being less than honest to later give way to the guilt that comes when he does appear more understanding.
Agnes relationship with Robert is a lot less well developed. He represents the exciting new thing in her life opening her up to a new world of possibilities that she hadn’t previously considered. Part of the problem is a lack of chemistry making it difficult to believe that Agnes is enticed by the romantic notion of this strange man who is knowledgable about the outside world, shares her new interest and encourages her personal growth. For what he’s given Irrfan Khan does a fine job but the character just isn’t as well developed as either Agnes or Louie so ends up feeling more like a device than anything else.
Kelly Macdonald is great as Agnes. Her portrayal of the shy and retiring housewife with unexpressed ideas and bouts of confidence brought on as the film progresses is excellent. She carries the film wonderfully by making Agnes sympathetic, interesting and complex all through her performance during solitary scenes and the way she chooses to play off the other actors. David Denman does a great job as well. He’s physically imposing and at times intimidating but tempers that with regular bouts of serenity that make it easy to believe that Agnes would see though the tough exterior and decide to be with him.
The story is really well told with everything branching outward from the characters and their established relationships which helps make the alterations to those connections feel believable. It’s constantly compelling to see how Agnes’ altered world view will have an impact on those she is close to and keeping everything tied closely to the metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle as a representation for Agnes lack of completeness creates a strong sense of purpose. One drawback to the storytelling is an ending that labours the point that is being made a little too heavily but on the whole it’s a compelling character study that never ceases to impress thanks to some smart choices made with the portrayal of the characters
A complex and compelling character study with an excellent leading performance from Kelly Macdonald. She carries the film wonderfully both in the solitary scenes and those she shares with other members of the cast. Puzzle is a film that keeps the character relationships at its core and they are mostly rich in the way they come across. Agnes’ husband Louie could have easily been portrayed as a suffocating monstrous figure but he is nuanced and has a strongly varied connection with Agnes that the film makes great use of. Similarly the relationship between Agnes and her two sons is well established if a little underdeveloped. The real weak link is the underdone connection between Agnes and Robert who represents her window into a new world of possibilities but never comes across as much more than a storytelling device. It does the job but not much more than that. The film keeps the central metaphor in mind throughout and it comes across clearly with the only real drawback being an ending that lingers on the point being made longer than it needs to. Despite the minor flaws this is a wonderfully complex character study with strong core relationships and a clear metaphor that is explored well.
- an excellent leading performance from Kelly Macdonald
- complex relationship building that doesn’t take the easy way out to make a point
- a strong central metaphor
- excellent characterisation
- the Robert character feeling more like a device than a fully formed presence
- an ending that lingers on a point that is already well made
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