Film review: Kelly Macdonald is luminous in Puzzle

Kelly Macdonald and Irrfan Khan in Puzzle
Damon Smith

A SELFLESS 40-something mother pieces together her future by prioritising her desires for a change in director Marc Turtletaub's nuanced character study.

Based on an Argentinian film released in 2010, Puzzle observes the ebb and flow of family life at close quarters, gently exposing the unspoken dreams, careless criticism and fractured self-confidence, which bind a dysfunctional clan in the suburbs of New York, where religion and routine hold sway.

Screenwriters Oren Moverman and Polly Mann unhurriedly sketch protagonists with affection and a keen eye for detail, opening with a virtually dialogue-free sequence of quiet, devastating power.

A woman decorates and caters her own birthday party, silently sliding candles into the chocolate frosting of her cake before blowing them out in front of well-fed guests, who haven't lifted a finger all night.

Emotion barely registers on her face – it is another year surrounded by the same people in an impeccably maintained house, which is also her prison.

Glasgow-born actress Kelly Macdonald blossoms before our eyes as the downtrodden homemaker, who is reborn when she discovers a gift for completing jigsaw puzzles at speed.

She expresses her emotions with a tremulous gesture or lingering glance, which speak louder than screeds of dialogue.

Agnes (Macdonald) was raised in a close-knit immigrant community by her widowed father. Her sense of duty is focused on the church and her loved ones, mechanic husband Louie (David Denman) and grown-up sons Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams).

Agnes cooks, cleans and tends to her brood's needs, blinkered to the soul-destroying stagnancy of her unedifying existence. For her birthday, she receives a smartphone, which she feels is a waste of money when she is predominantly at home with a landline, and a 1000-piece jigsaw.

Next afternoon, as Agnes slots the pieces of the puzzle into place, she experiences a giddy rush of excitement. She decides to pursue jigsaws as a hobby, despite Louie's vociferous disdain.

Consequently, she secretly agrees to partner a reclusive inventor called Robert (Irrfan Khan) at a jigsaw tournament, where victory would secure them a berth in the world championships in Belgium, though she cares little about trophies or glory.

"You don't want a free trip to the ancestral home of the Brussels Sprout?" deadpans Robert.

Puzzle is artfully constructed around the luminous Macdonald and she gels beautifully with Khan and Denman as two very different men competing for her time and affection.

Pleasingly, the various elements of a gently paced script don't slot neatly into place – Turtletaub's drama is merely a corner piece of a much larger picture.

PUZZLE (15, 103 mins) Drama/Romance. Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman, Bubba Weiler, Austin Abrams. Director: Marc Turtletaub

RATING: 7/10

Released: September 7 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)

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