Review: 'Puzzle' explores a housewife's self-discovery through jigsaw pieces

Kelly Macdonald

Kelly Macdonald Photo by Linda Kallerus, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Puzzle is a movie that’s both as simple and as complicated as its namesake. A remake of the 2010 Argentine picture Rompecabezas, the U.S. version explores the difficulties of 21st-century housewifery with an approach that feels at once wholly American and also universal.

The film tells the story of Agnes (Kelly Macdonald), a woman whose day-to-day life consists of running errands, attending church meetings, and cooking meals for her husband and two sons. She loves her family, but it’s clear from the opening scene—in which Agnes picks up the pieces of a plate her husband breaks at her own birthday party—that her identity as an individual has been subsumed by that of a suburban caretaker.

But things begin to change when Agnes discovers a preternatural knack for assembling jigsaw puzzles. After cruising through what she has at home, Agnes takes a train into New York City to visit a puzzle shop. There she finds an advertisement posted by someone seeking a puzzling partner. Agnes calls the number and soon meets Robert (Irrfan Khan), a wealthy inventor looking to enter a puzzle competition.

While she’s reluctant at first, Agnes decides to practice with Robert in secret—and through this straightforward new hobby she undergoes a fortysomething awakening.

Puzzle is one of those indie features whose success is predicated on its lead actor. That’s not to say it would be a bad movie without Kelly Macdonald, nor that the supporting actors don’t pull their weight. In fact, Khan and David Denman, who plays Agnes’ husband, Louie, both manage their parts deftly without overtaking Macdonald.

But the scope feels so small, the story so delicate, that if it weren’t for the performance she gives here, it’s unclear whether Puzzle would stand out as much as it does. Even at its peaks, this is a movie where the driving action is two people sitting at a table and connecting little cardboard pieces to one another. Macdonald makes it something more.

Agnes’ transformation is understated, but also relatively radical. Missing a church meet-up and sneaking into the Big Apple to do puzzles instead of grocery shopping may not feel like the most extreme moves to make, but for Agnes, these are momentous steps. Macdonald underplays her through the beginning scenes, allowing her to slowly come into her own. We get a sense of self-discovery that feels incredibly real.

There’s something to be said here about Marc Turtletaub’s direction, too. The former Money Store CEO turned film producer has a surprisingly conscious grasp of lower-middle-class family dynamics, and his unorthodox directing style—he doesn’t do rehearsals, among other atypical methods—clearly lent itself to the film’s authentic feel. While it’s only Turtletaub’s second feature as a director, Puzzle is composed with the tact of a skilled veteran.

Still, it’s Kelly Macdonald’s movie at the end of the day. Puzzle isn’t so much a film about putting pieces together as it is a story of one woman pulling her life apart—for the better.

Director: Marc Turtletaub
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman
Rated: R
Theater: Now open, Uptown Theatre