Sunday 9 September 2018

"Puzzle" (Guardian 07/09/18)

Compare how vital Kelly Macdonald was to 1996’s Trainspotting with her cursory presence in 2017’s boysy sequel, and you’ll have some sense of how the British film industry has underestimated the Scottish actress. Macdonald has always been a supremely sympathetic performer, but her mousy air may well have become perceived as a big-screen limitation. Never as forceful as the A-list-bound Atwell or Winslet, she scuttled round in subservient roles (Gosford Park, Nanny McPhee), before escaping pantry-duty via HBO’s Boardwalk Empire: a wife part, yes, but one that proved steelier than first imagined over that five-season run. TV arcs bend towards their own form of justice.

Puzzle, the offbeat American indie opening this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, finds Macdonald tending house yet again – though here it’s an acknowledgement of wasted potential, a corner from which her character Agnes needs to be sprung. We join her doing the dayshift in her commuter-belt New York home, odd woman out in a conservative bolthole lorded over by mechanic husband Louie (David Denman) and two boisterous college-age sons. Escape comes, unexpectedly, in the form of a jigsaw puzzle, a birthday present that gives Agnes respite from chores; yet the gift also opens this meek denmother’s eyes to her great, long-honed facility for putting everything in its rightful place.

The out-of-the-box story derives from The Puzzle, an Argentine drama of 2009 written and directed by Lucrecia Martel associate Natalia Smirnoff. What the new version’s director Marc Turtletaub and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Polly Mann presumably responded to there was the gradual expansion of one woman’s horizons. (It seems crucial that Agnes’s first jigsaw should form a map of the world.) Puzzling allows our heroine welcome downtime, but also draws her outside in pursuit of bigger challenges. Shuttling into Manhattan, she’s steered towards competitive puzzling by cosmopolitan émigré Robert (a nicely understated Irrfan Khan), a spiritual guru who reformulates into something more.

What follows never entirely assumes those now-familiar, Sundance-approved indie contours. Yes, it’s a semi-quirky drama that repeatedly returns to the sight of fully grown individuals using jigsaw puzzles as metaphors for the way we live our lives. (“It’s a way to control the chaos,” insists Robert.) Yet there’s even odder activity going on within these frames; they haven’t had the haphazardness of lived experience sanded off them to better fit a screenwriting template. Abundant religious symbolism sometimes gives Puzzle the look of a consoling matinee remake of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, one in which the protagonist finds, rather than loses, themselves in patterns and shapes.

The cast lends this quest emotional weight and complexity. There are moments Macdonald nails out of decades-long habit: Agnes’s quiet pride at completing a 1000-piecer, say, or her painful modesty upon meeting Robert’s gaze. What’s new is that she also gets to assert herself: Agnes will eventually hit Louie with a pricelessly sarcastic “I’ll get your dinner now, dear”. Her pairing with the eternally lived-in Khan is itself an assertion of sorts – no-one, save Turtletaub, would have thought of putting these two together – and one complicated by Denman’s bluffly sympathetic hubby, though it’s perhaps inevitable the latter should start sweeping completed puzzles onto dining-room floors.

It remains as unfashionably analogue a diversion as jigsaws themselves might be in the Fortnite era – touchingly committed to watching flawed, lopsided humanoids attempting to tesselate – and it sometimes seems a touch neat about recording this process. A wilder project might have gone all-in on the competitive puzzling, where Turtletaub skirts the scene’s fringes, more compelled by character than sensation. Yet there’s modest craft and genuine heart here, not to mention an eye-catching centrepiece: an actress growing more certain of herself, and more capable than ever of holding an entire picture together – even one as unusual, and sometimes frankly as unlikely, as this.

Puzzle is now playing in selected cinemas.

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