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'Puzzle': She's Come A Long Way, Maybe

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires film critic
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We are reminded in Marc Turtletaub's "Puzzle," about an unappreciated housewife who finds meaning and identity in doing jigsaw puzzles, that if you want to find truth, look to fiction. We Homo sapiens have been doing it since time immemorial. No one's feelings get hurt, at least not until their misdeeds are exposed for what they are. So bless the metaphors — purveyors of honesty by illustration. Civilizations rise and fall by them, proving in their finest example that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.
 
Building his case from a sensitively adept script Polly Mann and Owen Moverman adapted from the Argentinian film "Rompecabezas," Turtletaub poignantly adds to the body of literature decrying both the obvious and invisible ways in which women have been suppressed. Thick deceit permeates the air as Agnes hustles around the house in devoted servitude to her husband and two teen-aged boys. She knows the unfairness but is not sure if she could ever acknowledge it in this lifetime. Complicit in her vassalage, dad and sons submerse their guilt.
 
What happens after this bit of family dynamics is established is why we love the movies. We know full well that for every passive Agnes who experiences an epiphany regarding her plight and potential, there are tens of thousands resigned to suffering in quiet desperation. There will be no police coming to their homes, no counselor offering a safe house or a cellular phone until Madame Surreptitiously Abused can find a life away from her thankless condition. It is a quiet
violence. At best maybe she's had a longtime confidante to hear her unaddressed cries.
 
All of which is why Kelly Macdonald's Agnes proves an offbeat and entertaining inspiration. She is the exception to a rule too often sadly true. Worthy of an Oscar nomination, her face speaks volumes in a stark rainbow of superbly evoked emotions. She is the everywoman: symptomatic of a society that would pay women less in wages than men, withhold family leave and deny them the vote until ultimately forced into acquiescence. However, whether she knows it or not, the long, tacitly administered denigration she's suffered has prepared Agnes for her moment.
 
Like many personal revelations, the seeds of change seem rather inconsequential on first blush. Here, it's something as simple as the gift of a jigsaw puzzle from Agnes's aunt; 1,000 pieces, finished in half an afternoon. She had fun, and later, mulling this heretofore undiscovered talent muses about dreams unfulfilled. She would have liked to go to college. She was always good in math. Imbibing this little euphoria, we contemplate what simple praise it takes to please the ego.
 
Have we been remiss in feeding ours, or perhaps that of others?
 
Now, here's where it gets a little soap opera-like, replete with a tad of taboo inference but all for good purpose. In search of a puzzle as challenging as the one that pried a crack into her soul, Agnes secretly takes the train from Bridgeport, Conn., to Manhattan. There, in a puzzle emporium/cafe, she is suddenly transported to where kindred spirits take very seriously what her husband poo-poohed. Ah, legitimacy! She buys a puzzle and, noticing a bulletin board solicitation for a tournament partner, she takes what must be the boldest step in her insular life.
 
Psst! It's a guy and an interesting one at that. As it has been impressed upon us that up until now Agnes has had no greater ambition than to visit Montreal, we issue a collective "Oh, my goodness." A wealthy Indian inventor who lives in a barely furnished, big-ticket townhouse, Robert, congenially acted by Irrfan Khan, is quickly enthralled by Agnes's puzzle expertise.
 
She's the goods, he's the polish, in more ways than one. He informs that they must begin practicing for an upcoming tournament immediately. She is wowed, charmed and scared. This means sneaking away to New York regularly without giving her husband Louie (David Denman), a 21st-century contemporization of Archie Bunker, the slightest hint of her other life.
 
Aside from the lying by omission, Agnes's adventure reminds of Florinda Bolkan's Clara in Vittorio De Sica's "A Brief Vacation" (1973), wherein a put-upon housewife doesn't get a glimpse into herself until, whilst recuperating from tuberculosis in a sanitarium, she meets her catalyst.
 
Alas, we are set up good, asked to join, in our attempt to figure out what makes Agnes tick, no less authorities on the human heart than Chekhov, Ibsen, Tennessee Williams and maybe your Uncle Murray. What path she takes now that she's aware of being entitled to a sense of self-worth is the stuff of après theater discussion. But whether or not things end the way you think they should, surely we are better off for experiencing her quest to solve that "Puzzle" called life.
 
"Puzzle," rated R, is a Sony Pictures Classics release directed by Marc Turtletaub and stars Kelly Macdonald, David Denman and Irrfan Khan. Running time: 103 minutes

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