I really liked this movie — until I didn’t, about three-quarters of the way through. Puzzle is gossamer, suspended so delicately in a believable reality that when the spell woven by the excellent Kelly Macdonald and the mesmerizing Irrfan Khan is broken, you can drive trucks through the flimsy logic of the film’s world. Spoilers abound; my apologies in advance.
I am all for stories about women. I am all for stories about empowerment and growth and learning and yearning and upending expectations. But they must be grounded in reality, and they must be honest rather than merely anthemic. And I am so sorry that Puzzle simply does not measure up by these standards.
Briefly, Puzzle is about forty-year-old Agnes, colorless, dutiful housewife and mother of two living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, stifled by circumstance and personality. She lives entirely for others, not so much selflessly as anemically. But then, a chance birthday gift of a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle rekindles a long-extinguished pleasure in patterns and precision, as well as unleashing a prodigious talent: she assembles and reassembles the puzzle twice before getting dinner on the table. This is the most interesting part of the movie: watching her find her talent and voice as she shops for additional puzzles in New York and then responds to an ad seeking a puzzle partner for the upcoming national championship. It is thrilling to see Agnes, who rather reminded me of a waiflike Edith Bunker, come alive to her surroundings, her family dynamics, her helpless timidity, and attempt to exert a measure of control over these.
The brush with the exotic partner, Robert, an independently wealthy divorcé, is the catalyst for much of Agnes’s new awareness of the external — and her own interior — world. But then the filmmakers had to go and make it a love story.
Can’t a woman simply be friends with a man? That, to me, would have been far more interesting, and far more believable. Because once we start accepting that this man would fall in love with this undereducated homebody — and, more implausibly, that sheltered, Catholic Agnes married for some two decades would entertain the thought of adultery — the mechanics behind the scrim are revealed. I was jolted out of the storytelling into an awareness of being told a story, rather than being shown a life.
Agnes does not exist. What forty-year-old blue-collar woman in the tristate area in 2018 is a stay-at-home housewife? And the Agnes the filmmakers are wanting me to believe in would not hurt her husband, notwithstanding his insensitivity, chauvinism, and sometimes almost callous disregard for the wife he nonetheless adores and has built a life with.
I cannot recall the title of the movie or play or book that Agnes’s arc brings to mind, but it is there niggling at me. There is a woman, lately weak and insecure, who is by the last scene busily and happily creating while her once-dominant husband is offhandedly, but affectionately, dismissed for the evening. I sort of see Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell in the part, but it might also be Wendy Hiller in Pygmalion. But the soaring independence is palpable and exhilarating and satisfying. Agnes’s own choice to both diss husband and ditch lover to hightail it to Montreal for “me time” annoyed the hell out of me. And yes, I fully appreciate the filmmakers’ setup that Agnes’s puzzle-crafting strategy, which she reverted to after adopting a paired strategy in her sessions with Robert to win the big championship, is all about self-reliance and singlemindedness.
But to assert self alone — even if for just a holiday respite — in a household with basically decent and caring people (they all sit down, cellphone-less, for dinner as a family every night!) or even with the existence of a knowing and caring lover is to deny the importance of connectedness in what Robert rightly terms a chaotic world.
The movie could have been so good, and the actors really gave it so much. A pity that the filmmakers could not move past a feminist, as opposed to humanist, ending.