The world of competitive jigsaw puzzling leads to a shy romance between Kelly Macdonald and Irrfan Khan

puzzle edinburgh film festival

Source: Edinburgh Film Festival


Marc Turtletaub. US. 2018. 103 mins

The world of competitive jigsaw puzzling offers the missing piece in the self-fulfilment of a meek working-class housewife played by  Kelly Macdonald in this big-hearted drama which is as cosy and unassuming as one of her character’s demurely buttoned-up cardigans. A lovely, understated and deeply humane performance from Macdonald is contrasted with a showier, more unpredictable turn from Irrfan Khan, as Robert, the ‘puzzle partner’ who is enchanted with this shy woman with the quicksilver fingers and her own, idiosyncratic way of making order out of chaos.

Should connect with older audiences, particularly women, chiming with a demographic which is consistently underserved by intelligent material

The second directorial venture from producer Marc Turtletaub (best known for Little Miss Sunshine), Puzzle shares with his most successful producing projects a cast of richly realised characters and an eye for the seemingly subtle details which help the whole dynamic of the story click into place. One such moment comes right at the beginning of the film. Agnes sidles around the periphery of a family party, laden with plates and a need for affirmation. It’s only after she has cleared away the detritus of everyone else’s good time and is bringing out the cake that we realise that the party is in celebration of her own birthday.

Although perhaps not as obviously commercial as a film like Little Miss Sunshine, Puzzle, which is adapted from the 2009 Argentinian film Rompecabezas by Natalia Smirnoff, should connect with older audiences, particularly women, chiming with a demographic which is consistently underserved by intelligent material. The film screens in Edinburgh following its debut in Sundance and shorly before Sony Pictures Classics begins a worldwide rollout in the US on July 27.

The birthday that Agnes spent blending in with the wallpaper is a pivotal one, although she doesn’t yet realise it. She opens her presents; looking askance at a new iphone – she views it as an unwarranted and unfair criticism rather than a gift. But a present from her aunt piques her interest. It’s a 1000 piece jigsaw which, soon after, Agnes pieces together in a few hours one afternoon.

Her quiet pleasure in the act of solving the puzzle – it clicks on a switch in a mind which has a long-shelved gift for maths and patterns – prompts Agnes to do something radical. She boards a train in her local station, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and heads to Manhattan to the shop where her aunt purchased the jigsaw. And for Agnes, closeted in her home and family, lovingly but thoughtlessly steamrollered by her husband (David Denman, excellent), cushioned by her Catholic faith and tuned out from the world around her, this is huge. No less major is the fact that, perhaps for the first time in her life, she starts to lie to her husband about her whereabouts.

It’s a testament to Macdonald’s performance (and later, to Khan’s charm) that we share her passion for puzzling. It’s fair to say that solving jigsaws is not a hobby which lends itself to thrilling cinema. But, accompanied by a pleasant rippling score from Dustin O’Halloran, Agnes begins to bloom. Part of her personal growth comes from being seen as a woman for once, rather than just as a cog which ensures the smooth running of the household. She basks in the candid admiration of her puzzle partner, and a tentative romance blossoms between them. But crucially, this is not a story that suggests that Agnes will only achieve fulfillment in the arms of a new man. On the contrary: Robert is more a stepping stone on the road which will lead Agnes, finally, to realise her potential and make her own future.

Production companies: Big Beach

Worldwide distribution: Sony Pictures Classics

Producers: Wren Arthur, Guy Stodel, Marc Turtletaub, Peter Saraf

Screenplay: Oren Moverman, Polly Mann

Production Design: Roshelle Berliner

Editing: Catherine Haight

Cinematography: Christopher Norr

Music: Dustin O’Halloran

Main cast: Kelly Macdonald, David Denman, Irrfan Khan, Austin Abrams, Bubba Weiler, Helen Piper Coxe, Liv Hewson, Myrna Cabello, Audrie Neenan