Saturday 6 September 2014

"The Hundred-Foot Journey" (DT 05/09/14)

The Hundred-Foot Journey (PG cert, 117 min) ***

Since 1977’s ABBA: The Movie, cuddly Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom has doggedly pursued the cultural centre ground, and his new foodie drama The Hundred-Foot Journey boasts many reassuringly familiar ingredients. It’s based on a bestseller (by Richard C. Morais). It stars Helen Mirren. Steven Spielberg and Oprah produce. It features glowing coverage of the French countryside, and more close-ups of cardamom than the average Waitrose ad. As the narrative approaches its desired fusion of Gallic and Indian cuisine, so too Hallstrom looks to have hit his sweet spot: the very middle of middlebrow.

Yet stick around: what first appears another tepid culture-clash comes eventually to the boil. We join the itinerant Kadam clan as they settle into the picturesque village where headstrong Papa (Om Puri) plans to open his new restaurant. Due diligence, alas, is not Papa’s forte. Too late, he realises his property faces the Michelin-starred establishment of the formidable Madame Mallory – and here’s where La Mirren comes in, modifying the down-the-nose froideur of her various Queens avec accent, and witheringly dismissing the newcomers (“Curry ees curry, ees eet not?”) like so much floppy asparagus.

Her gradual softening – hastened by a well-turned omelette – mirrors the way Western producers have warmed to India as the kind of movie-mad territory it pays to get into. The Hundred-Foot Journey is more generous than last week’s Million Dollar Arm, which regarded Indians as raw materials to be traded between rich Americans. Despite Mirren’s star billing, its sympathies lie on the other side of the street, where the no-nonsense Puri is bringing a cherishably grouchy gravity to even the trifling light comedy of pressganging patrons and outmanoeuvring Madame at market.

Elsewhere, predictability holds sway. Hallstrom the romantic sucker re-emerges in the obligation subplot that sees Papa’s industrious eldest Hassan (Manish Dayal) wooing Madame’s saucer-eyed sous chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). Yet Hassan’s personal trajectory offers one late-in-the-day surprise, capably negotiated by handsome newcomer Dayal. Similarly, Michel Blanc is put to clever, moderating use as the mayor, logging Madame’s objections to the noise, smell and colour the Kadams have brought en ville, while warning her not to align herself with the town’s uglier elements.

Here, finally, the film ups the heat, and starts to stir. A softer-touch movie would almost certainly have ducked the firebomb attack on Maison Mumbai, and whitewashed the racist graffiti – so let’s give credit to socially-minded screenwriter Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Hummingbird) for ensuring that Hallstrom’s doesn’t. Such committed professionalism is hard to resist, and if The Hundred-Foot Journey ultimately proves no spicier than chicken tikka masala for the soul, that’s Chef Lasse for you: at his comforting best – and this is close to it – nobody does it milder.

The Hundred-Foot Journey is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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