Its empowerment story aside, characters in Puzzle are hard to figure out

By Karen Gordon

Rating: C

A housewife finding herself is at the heart of the film Puzzle.  But the movie itself is a conundrum.

The film centers on Agnes, a fortysomething, dutiful housewife played by Kelly Macdonald

She’s married to Louis (David Denman), a garage-owner. But business isn’t great and money is tight. The couple has two adult sons who live with them and work at the garage.   

Agnes’s life is centered around cooking family meals, and, as a good Catholic woman, volunteers at the church. Things have fallen into a rut for her, but at the same time there’s nothing going on that suggests that she has greater aims or plans for herself. 

 Irrfan Khan and housewife Kelly MacDonald try to figure out her gift for puzzle-solving in Puzzle

Irrfan Khan and housewife Kelly MacDonald try to figure out her gift for puzzle-solving in Puzzle

The turning point comes when she’s given two gifts for her birthday, a brand new iPhone, which she first pooh-poohs.  (What does she need with these newfangled devices?) She’s also given a thousand-piece puzzle. Agnes dumps the pieces on the dining room table and several hours later has the whole thing done.  

Not only is she good at this new game, but it gives her pleasure. So, Agnes takes a rare day trip to New York to buy herself more puzzles. That’s where she finds an ad for someone who is looking for a partner to compete in speed Jigsaw competitions. (Yes, it’s a thing.)

That someone turns out to be Robert (Irrfan Khan). He lives in a gorgeous, half-empty house. He’s wealthy and worldly. But Robert is in a dark place, deeply lonely since his wife walked out on him for reasons he doesn’t quite understand. He’s plagued by the gravity of what he sees on the news, He has deep thoughts that are way above Agnes’s head.  They’re complete opposites.

But, impressed by her speed at solving a jigsaw puzzle, he takes her on as a partner, and the two agree to a twice a week practice schedule at his house aiming for the national finals.

For reasons that are unclear, Agnes, doesn’t tell her husband or family what she’s up to. Instead she lies. And, of course, that leads to complications. 

Building a movie about a character finding their true self is a movie trope, but a rich one.

And although the idea of connecting with that trope over a speed-jigsaw puzzle competition seems odd, it’s a pretty clear metaphor. After all aren’t we all puzzles to ourselves at some level, and puzzles to the people close to us.  For lots of us life may be about sorting that out in the search of our true self and a hope for a fulfilling life. 

But is self discovery or the search for the truth on the mind of Agnes? The problem with Puzzle is that it’s impossible to tell. For much of the movie Agnes is a blank. Unworldly, uneducated, not really very curious, she doesn’t seem to be driven to reach for much more than what she has.    

She relates to people on a basic level. There are problems in her nuclear family, but they love and admire her.  Agnes doesn’t have much to say. She’s warm, and there are some moments where her compassion seems triggered, but we hear little in the way of wisdom. And as her sense of self grows, she’s peevish and, because she can’t express herself well,  even mean.  

Agnes deals with the world with the emotional complexity of a child.

There’s a moment in the film where she gets frustrated and wonders out loud about why jigsaw puzzles are working for her. Robert gives her a lofty speech about why he thinks she’s special, both in that regard and in the larger sense.

The speech also attempts to answer the pressing question “Why jigsaw puzzles?” but his language is too complex. She doesn’t understand what he’s saying. Robert is so sophisticated that it’s hard to understand his attraction to a woman who seems rigid and gives so little.  

Both Khan and Kelly are wonderful actors, but there’s so little chemistry between them that they might as well be in different movies.

And as her independence grows, where we’d hope for some wisdom, Agnes begins to bite. She starts to make decisions without any sense of responsibility to other people in her life.  There’s a narcissistic quality to her characer, which makes the film unsatisfying.

Agnes’s relentless blankness is the film’s biggest problem, and it makes the other characters’ affection for her confusing. Are they projecting on her?  If her family life has become incredibly routine, one wonders role she has played in that. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the only person holding Agnes back is Agnes – before and after the discovery of her hidden talent.

Puzzle. Directed by Marc Turtletaub. Starring Kelly MacDonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman. Now playing in Vancouver and at the Varsity in Toronto.