In the modest indie drama "Puzzle," a sheltered Catholic homemaker embarks on a journey of self-discovery and empowerment, thanks to the stimulating power of jigsaw puzzles. The directorial debut of producer Marc Turtletaub ("Little Miss Sunshine," "Loving"), "Puzzle" follows a predictable path, but packs a secret weapon in the form of a powerhouse lead performance from actress Kelly Macdonald.
Macdonald plays Agnes, who when we first meet her is living a quiet, uncomplicated existence in Connecticut with her husband Louie (David Denman) and their two sons, Gabe (Austin Abrams) and Ziggy (Bubba Weiler). Her life has settled into a comfortable but mundane routine, with days spent tethered to their home or occasionally driving down the road to volunteer her time with at local church. The film begins with a birthday party, and Agnes is so focused on serving and making sure every guest has their needs tended to, that it takes us some time to realize that the birthday being celebrated is hers.
One of the gifts she receives is a 1,000-piece puzzle, and when Agnes finally decides to sit down and open it up one afternoon, she ends up completing it in only a couple of hours. It seems she has a knack for this, discovering that she quite likes the activity's ability to narrow her focus and shut out the rest of the world for a few hours.
She's also given an iPhone, a device she claims to have no use for, but now with a purpose she uses it to venture into New York City to buy another puzzle for herself, and gradually begins the process of exploring the big world outside her home. She answers an ad posted by Robert (Irrfan Khan), a recently divorced champion puzzler looking for a new partner to join him for competitions. They team up with plans to enter a tournament together, but quickly establish a bond that grows to unexpected depths.
Based on the 2009 film "Rompecabezas," from Argentinean filmmaker Natalia Smirnoff, the plot of "Puzzle" can feel overly schematic, following too closely to the predetermined picture promised by the front of the box. Even when Anges' sheltered existence strains credibility, Macdonald's wonderful performance finds the truth at the character's center.
Perhaps best known for lending her Scottish brogue to the character of Merida in Pixar's "Brave," Macdonald gets a long-overdue leading role with "Puzzle," and makes one hope she gets inundated with similar offers in the future. An actress of uniquely sharp sensitivity, Macdonald is magnificent as a woman who's never allowed herself to realize how dissatisfied she truly is, and gradually learns to follow her own desires after a lifetime of living for others.
The film is a showcase for Macdonald, but she's matched by the great Irrfan Khan, who plays Robert with such a playful charisma and magnetism that we understand immediately why Agnes might find herself drawn to him.
"Puzzle" doesn't offer earth-shattering surprises, but finds an understated power in capturing the satisfaction and jittery anticipation of finding the missing piece in one's life and finally feeling it snap into place.
Kelly Macdonald and Irrfan Khan in "Puzzle."
PHOTO COURTESY SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
"Puzzle" movie review | Kelly Macdonald