Dir: Marc Turtletaub, 103 mins, starring Kelly Macdonald, Irfan Khan, Liv Hewson, David Denman, Austin Abrams
“The National Jigsaw Championship? I didn’t know such a thing existed,” one character exclaims early on in Marc Turtletaub’s Puzzle (which opens the Edinburgh Film Festival this week prior to its UK release later in the summer). We’ve had films in which characters discover their true selves by entering spelling competitions or playing chess or solving maths problems or swimming the English Channel or even by stripping.
Here, a downtrodden housewife (played in very soulful fashion by Kelly Macdonald) is finally able to express her own individuality by showing off her flair at piecing together 1,000-piece jigsaws.
Agnes (Macdonald) is first seen hoovering and putting out chairs for a party. She lives in some suburban nowheresville-style town not too far from New York with her boorish, sexist husband (David Denman) and two young adult sons. Agnes has buried her own personality and spends her days serving the men in her life.
She shops and cooks for them, wakes them up every morning, and cleans up after them. Her social life is severely restricted. She has acquaintances from church but seemingly no friends of her own.
Turtletaub shows Macdonald in frequent big close-ups, suffering in quiet torment. “How are you?” she is asked. “The same,” she replies forlornly. Her life never changes. In a rare moment to herself, between washing dishes, shopping for groceries and cooking and cleaning, she does a puzzle which she has been given as a gift. It takes her no time at all.
A few tweaks of the plot later, she is going regularly to New York City, a place she rarely visited before, to meet with Robert, a wealthy and enigmatic inventor (Irrfan Khan), who sees her talent and wants her to be his “puzzle partner” in the next big jigsaw competition. If they do well enough, they will win a trip to compete at an even bigger jigsaw event in Belgium.
There is an obvious erotic attraction between them but neither will admit it. Nor will Agnes tell her family the real purpose of her trips. (She pretends she is visiting an elderly relative with an injured foot).
Befitting its subject matter, Puzzle is put together in an understated but painstaking fashion. At times, as Agnes travels to and from New York on the commuter train, she is like an American counterpart to Celia Johnson’s housewife, contemplating adultery with the doctor played by Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter. Puzzle is set in the present day but its muted lighting and the drab decoration in Agnes’s home give it the fell of a period piece.
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Agnes and Robert have to race against the clock to piece the puzzles together. Tension, though, is in short supply. It is hard to generate much suspense from two characters sitting at a table, pushing wooden pieces across it. It quickly becomes apparent anyway that the puzzles are a McGuffin anyway. They’re not really the subject of the film at all.
Instead, this is a character study of a woman slowly emerging from a cloistered world in which her personality has almost been snuffled out of existence. Agnes is far brighter and more incisive in her thinking than the men who take her for granted. This is a slow burning film but Macdonald’s performance galvanises it.
As the woman staging her own quiet rebellion, using jigsaw puzzles as her unlikely tool, she shows a winning mix of reserve, tenderness and utter single-mindedness.
‘Puzzle’ opens the Edinburgh Film Festival on 20 June
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