The trailer and premise of the movie Puzzle might lead potential audiences to think this is a typical, predictable romantic tale of an unlikely and forbidden pairing, but Puzzle, a feature directorial debut for Marc Turtletaub who is known for producing Little Miss Sunshine and Loving is neither typical or predictable. It is, however, simple, nuanced, with just the right amount of romance. It is a gentle character study of Agnes, an achingly shy woman who in her early 40s is, unbeknownst to herself, at a crossroads in life. She’s a wife to Louie – a hard working, blue collar mechanic who loves his simple life and routines- and mother to two older teen sons. One is college bound and thinks more highly of himself than he should while the other more elder son, is overlooked, feeling trapped in dead end job working alongside his father.
The opening scene carefully sets the stage of this quiet housewife who has been content to put her family’s wants and needs above her own. Agnes tends to a family birthday gathering at their modest Upstate New York house in which she alone acts as cook, caterer and cleaner. All would appear normal except that she is actually the guest of honor, adorning her own cake and interacting with no one. Louie loves Agnes and depends on her greatly. He isn’t cruel, but he is selfish and neglectful. His expectations for Agnes are simple but firm to maintain the status quo of housework, grocery shopping and occasional accounting for the family business. They both assume she wants the same until one fateful day, Agnes samples one of her birthday gifts of a 1,000 piece puzzle. Finishing in record time, this ignites a passion and reveals a skill she never knew existed. It also unleashes a series of disruptions in the family’s routine. Soon, and with much trepidation, she embarks down a path of unchartered territory that includes covert weekly trips to Manhattan and partnering with Robert, a competitive puzzler.
While Robert, portrayed soulfully by Irrfan Khan, is independently wealthy and recently divorced, is impressed with Agnes’ natural talent and intrigued by her sanguine demeanor, he is kept at arms length. Despite that, he is determined to charm and befriend her, and when the international puzzle championship. Although all of the above creates change in Agnes, making her take stock of her life and future, it does so very quietly and subtly. As was the case with characters and situations in Loving, Turtletaub treads lightly, crafting his protagonist through the lens of loving observation. Kelly Macdonald is perfectly cast as Agnes. The same quiet confidence she has brought to other notable supporting roles such as No Country for Old Men and Gosford Park, comes through superbly in this rare leading role. She’s taking what could be a cliche character and making her complex.
The film’s metaphor is obvious- in mastering the art of puzzling Agnes is putting the pieces together of what could be her new life. Despite the heavy handed metaphor use, the not as obvious journey getting there is sweet and worthwhile. In Agnes’ seemingly insignificant world, she’s making a stand and claiming a victory … piece by piece.