'Puzzle': a he-said, she-said film review

Kelly Macdonald and Irrfan Kahn as Kelly and Robert, two expert puzzlers seeking something more from life, star in "Puzzle."

Kelly Macdonald and Irrfan Kahn as Kelly and Robert, two expert puzzlers seeking something more from life, star in "Puzzle."

By Tom and Marilyn Jozwik

Published Aug. 21, 2018

“Puzzle” is a celebration of those valiant but underappreciated women (like so many of our mothers) sometimes identified as “homemakers”—women typically not career-oriented, not employed outside the home, but dedicated to maintaining family harmony while following a regimen of grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning house, baking and so many other activities including church and community volunteerism.

Such a woman is Agnes, lifelong resident of the same house in a working class neighborhood of a town within a commuter train ride of New York City, wife of a hardworking but chauvinistic garage owner, mother of two young adult sons. Agnes is a kind and decent woman, ordinary in every way … except that she’s an absolute whiz at assembling jigsaw puzzles. This talent, unique but seemingly inconsequential, proves to be a game changer in the middle-aged woman’s life.

HE: I liked “Puzzle” very much, for a number of reasons. I thought Kelly Macdonald played Agnes to perfection. That remarkable character changed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, but changed believably. And her family dynamic changed drastically. All this because of an apparently, to use Agnes’ own words, “childish hobby for bored people.”

SHE: I found Agnes to be somewhat of an anachronism. She obviously has a brilliant mind, someone who can put together a 1,000-piece puzzle in a matter of hours. I can’t believe that it took her so long, perhaps 20 years, to realize how smart she really is.

HE: Did you like the character of this protagonist? And what about the other characters in the film, for instance the puzzler with whom she partners?

SHE: I guess I felt Macdonald to be somewhat unbelievable. Not in her performance, but just in portraying someone who lives in the current time. It seems like this film should’ ve been set 30 years ago. Robert (Irrfan Khan), the Indian Agnes partners with on puzzles and eventually falls in love with, seems listless and bored at first. I suppose that was his character, yet he was so bland as to be unappealing. He was a rich man who was bored like Agnes, which seemed to be their tangent. Not the stuff, in my mind, of a great romance.

HE: Falling in love is a strange thing, and love of course makes for strange bedfellows. The Agnes-Robert romance is probably more interesting than the relationship between Agnes and her husband Louie has ever been. And Robert is a more intriguing, if less fleshed out, character than the husband.

SHE: Granted, Robert is mysterious. I liked the performance of David Denman (as Louie), and the kids (Bubba Weiler, Austin Abrams), for that matter. They all portrayed a good and decent, but flawed, family that needs to change its dynamics—and does, when Agnes, the heart and soul of the family, no longer finds that role satisfying.

HE: I was fascinated by “Puzzle’s” depictions of and references to Lent and Easter. The filmmakers paralleled the Christian season of self-denial and then resurrection—triumph and light—with Agnes’ personal experiences along those lines. It’s in many ways not a religious movie, but in some sense it is.

SHE: Yes, I liked those parallels, too, and also the bookends of a broken plate and finding the last piece.

HE: And I liked the contrasts, like Agnes’ apologizing after another driver honks at her early on, and then  honking impatiently at a driver in front of her much later in the film after her “transformative” experience, to use an adjective given a bit of prominence in the movie. Plus the contrast from her early subservience—I believe she tells her husband “You’re the boss”—to her eventually telling the old man “I’m not your servant; you don’t own me.”

SHE: The transformation was quite obvious, but one wonders if Agnes wasn’t more at peace with her former life.

HE: Interesting observation. But I think she’s happier at the end.

The acting was consistently good. The story, while hardly earthshaking, was realistic, one in which I never lost interest. I think the film enabled the viewer to see Agnes, uncannily, as Robert, and Louie, and her sons all see her. While there was a bedroom scene or two, there was, interestingly, absolutely no nudity. I grade it A- .

SHE: It was a well-acted, well-edited film that made all its points clearly. There was a dark, brooding sort of tone which reflected the main character as well as her lover. There wasn’t a lot of humor; Agnes at one point tells Robert she has no sense of humor, which the film also reflected. 

I guess I’d give it a B. It was pretty squeaky-clean, save for a few F-bombs dropped in one scene. 

"Puzzle" is rated R.