Kelly MacDonald Wins in PUZZLE

The indie drama from Marc Turtletaub also stars Irrfan Khan

Agnes is the kind of woman who hosts a party, lights candles on the birthday cake and cleans in the kitchen while others celebrate the anniversary of her birth. Her routine is such that she counts down to her husband’s daily response to the morning alarm. Her youngest child, a senior in high school, chides her for her low-tech lifestyle. Even the lighting hints at her sheltered existence, casting her early on in silhouette, keeping her in the dark. But Agnes receives a puzzle for her birthday, and things start to change.

Kelly MacDonald (Brave, Gosford Park) stars as Agnes in producer/director Marc Turtletaub’s American adaptation of Puzzle (based on an Argentinian film). The homemaker and her family live in her childhood house in Connecticut, but MacDonald’s accent sounds like an attempt at a Midwestern flatness. Once you get over the accent weirdness, you see MacDonald play a woman realizing how little control she has, or currently allows herself, over things.

Husband Louie (David Denman, The Office) wants her at home, shopping for him and making his meals. High-schooler Gabe (Austin Abrams, Paper Towns) takes advantage of his mother’s caring nature, while older son Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) confides in Agnes about his wish to not work for Louie anymore. Initially Agnes seems ambivalent about her domestic situation, although the viewer picks up that she feels limited and stymied.

After realizing her aptitude at jigsaw puzzles, Agnes finds a puzzle partner — and maybe more — in divorced inventor Robert (prolific Indian actor Irrfan Khan, The Lunchbox, Piku). Through their weekly puzzling sessions, kept secret from Louie, Agnes becomes more self-assured and curious. Puzzles and patterns show up in places she hadn’t considered before: a cross in a room of her Catholic church or the ceiling of Grand Central train station. She questions things she hadn’t previously minded, although her guilt — a large theme of the work — hinders some of her forward movement.

As Robert, Khan charms both Agnes and the viewer. His dry wit contrasts with Agnes’ matter-of-fact nature, and their banter is enjoyable. The nascent romance between the two isn’t quite as compelling as the early days of their partnership, especially when compared to the uncertain tension between Louie and Agnes that captivates the viewer as the denouement grows nigh.

Dustin O’Halloran’s quietly pulsing, piano-heavy score (one my favorites of the year so far) hints at the interior journey Agnes undergoes and the uncomfortable persona she sheds throughout Puzzle. MacDonald handles it with aplomb; her performance here is memorable and noteworthy, even if the film as a whole may be less so.

Puzzle opened in Austin theaters on Friday, August 24.

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