Scottish actor Kelly Macdonald deserves a better showcase for her talents than this dull mid-life crisis drama

Film Review by Jamie Dunn | 20 Jun 2018
  • Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle
Film title: Puzzle
Director: Marc Turtletaub
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman, Daniel Sherman, Austin Abrams, Bubba Weiler

It’s fair to say that Agnes (Macdonald), the bored housewife at the heart of Marc Turtletaub’s Puzzle, is under-appreciated. The film opens with her cleaning for and then hosting a birthday party all on her lonesome. A little help from her schlubby husband and two teenage sons would have been nice, you think, as she rushes to light candles on a cake between handing out prosecco and cleaning up broken crockery. When Agnes actually blows out the candles – it turns out it’s her birthday! – you’ll feel rage on her behalf. No need to worry about your blood pressure, though. Puzzle doesn’t do anything to build on this spiky little opening. Cut the succeeding 90 minutes and you’d have a fine short, but instead the picture settles into all too predictable American indie rhythms.

Agnes’ life is so boring, it turns out, that completing the 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle she receives as a birthday present proves earth-shattering. Her newfound passion for puzzles sends her to the Big Apple in search of more challenging sets and into the life of Irrfan Khan’s Robert, a rich eccentric and fellow puzzle-nut, who invites her to partner with him at the national jigsaw puzzle championships.

The main gripe with Turtletaub’s picture is it doesn’t seem to understand – or at least communicate – what’s going on in the head of its own protagonist. Agnes is awkward, spacy and ignorant of the modern world, but the character’s behaviour doesn’t add up. Is she on the autism spectrum or is she simply the least curious person on the planet? Or maybe she's been zombified by her repressive religious beliefs – the film makes pains to remind you events are taking place during Lent. Beyond a few actorly tics, McDonald doesn’t let us in on what her character is thinking, and Turtletaub does nothing visually to help, with Dustin O'Halloran’s insistent score doing all the heavy lifting.

Even a visionary director would struggle to make scenes of characters solving jigsaw puzzles compelling, though. Turtletaub clearly favours Agnes’ hobby for its symbolic value over its cinematic one. The first puzzle she solves is a map of the world, which of course clues us in on how small Agnes’ life is and allows her to discreetly point to the place on it she’d most like to travel. “Montreal”, she says to her empty living room, pointing at the map. It’s a fine city, but hardly the most exotic dream location. And it just so happens to be the end of the line on the train that travels from New York City through her hometown. Like its protagonist’s holiday plans, Puzzle is sorely lacking in ambition.

Puzzle opens Edinburgh International Film Festival on 20 Jun, and screens again 23 Jun – more info and tickets here

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