Marc Turtletaub’s Puzzle takes what could be an overly simplistic pitch and finds a bittersweet human depth: a conservative housewife finds life renewal when she stumbles into competitive puzzling. The plot’s potential for oddness and twee cutesiness is luckily kept to our fears, for the film gives way to a sober and heartfelt character study made all the more surprising because of its entry point. Puzzle is more in search of micro moments that open the floodgates for macro changes in its protagonist than any performative pastiche to undercut its patient narrative.
A remake of 2009 Argentinean drama Rompecabezas, this film carries a steady, oceanic emotional undercurrent in a light package. Kelly Macdonald is Agnes, a housewife who has long become complacent with a life consumed by her unambitious children and similarly narrow visioned husband Louie, played by David Denman. Her quiet existence of churchgoing and providing for the family finds its ignition when she receives a birthday gift of a puzzle, which she channels her frustrations into multiple completions in a single day.
Agnes is a mostly interior cipher to her environment, asking as little questions of herself as she does of others. The speed and decisiveness which she attracts the tangible problem of the puzzle in front of her is her unleashed, unknown spirit, and the desire to face troubles rather than allow them to mold her into nothingness. Macdonald is rapturous and real here where lesser actors would take Agnes to more predictable extremes, trusting that Agnes’ tiny shifts can be compelling and worthy of their own study. The film’s arc may seem small or slight, but Macdonald makes the journey rigorous.
But Macdonald is also matched, or juxtaposed, with the chatty expressiveness of the forever charming Irrfan Khan as the fellow puzzler that enlists her to be his competitive partner. The romantic entanglement that develops between them is similarly understated throughout and avoids sensationalism, extending the film’s attempt for all actions to reveal further character depth. Khan is Macdonald’s opposite and equal; theirs is a layered and consistently revealing match and their chemistry is a playful, pained delight.
As Agnes’ family (particularly Denman’s bewildered husband) demands her happiness be crafted through their terms, just like the social confines thrust upon all suburban women, the quaking revelation is how she takes takes life into her own hands. As cliched as this may sound, the film’s virtuous slightness prevents an expected trite rendering. Turtletaub is uncommonly gracious, even allowing Louie his own tragedy in Denman’s holistic hands. While not to be confused for meekness, the film’s resistance to be demonstrative holds it back from connecting on the powerful level it has within its reach.
And, oh yeah, it’s about puzzles. Thankfully, without the obvious metaphors. But, like anything else in the lovely little film, none of its elements should be considered insignificant.