Left to right: Kelly Macdonald as Agnes and Irrfan Khan as Robert Photo by Linda Kallerus, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

REVIEW: “Puzzle” ★★★★

Powered by a mesmerizing performance from Kelly Macdonald, “Puzzle” is a compelling story of empowerment and self-discovery.

“Puzzle” is a quiet but powerful piece of film making. 

Powered by a mesmerizing performance from Kelly Macdonald (“Brave“), it’s a compelling story of empowerment and self-discovery.

Clever, charming, and ultimately uplifting, it’s a film that should inspire introspection and conversation about personal growth, change, and hope.

What’s it about?

Macdonald plays Agnes, an Upstate New York housewife who spends her days tending to her family’s needs.

That’s all she does, day in and day out, in the house she grew up in and never really left. It’s a good home — her husband Louie (David Denman) is decent and hard-working, and her boys have grown up smart, healthy, and kind-hearted.

But something’s missing. Agnes wrestles with unhappiness and has no real idea why.

That is, until she receives an unusual gift for her birthday: a 1,000 piece puzzle. She opens it, spreads the pieces out, and completes it without any real sense of how little time it took. 

It’s only a while after that she realizes how much she enjoyed the effort, and that she might be good at it.

That realization begins Agnes’s journey outside of the only life she’s ever known. Along the way she meets Robert (Irrfan Khan), an inventor and puzzle enthusiast who gently pushes her even further from her comfort zone.

The journey isn’t without its bumps. It’s not long before Louie and her sons notice that Agnes is changing, and not everyone welcomes the changes.

But the proverbial genie is out of the bottle. For Agnes, the road leads only forward towards a crossroads and finally a choice about the life she truly wants and the woman she truly wishes to be.

Puzzle poster

Remaking “Rompecabezas”

“Puzzle” is based on a 2009 Argentinian film entitled “Rompecabezas,” which literally means “puzzles.”

This new version retains the previous film’s basic premise, but it’s the new details that provide a plethora of story wrinkles and directions for the cast to explore.

Some of those wrinkles are stylistic. Director Marc Turtletaub frames shots early in the film to emphasize Agnes’s diminutive stature, within her own little world and when she steps beyond it.

Casting also contributes to this effect. Next to Denman’s tall and husky Louie, Agnes looks even smaller at the outset, only to command the screen fully in the film’s final act.

Macdonald magnificent

But the real strength of “Puzzle” is its cast. 

Macdonald leads that cast with her transfixing turn as Agnes. She makes Agnes’s personal awakening — its joys, challenges, and heartbreaks — a palpable, visible phenomenon.

Khan, meanwhile, provides a delightful foil for his co-star. His take on Robert — worldly, calm, but also incomplete — provides for much of the film’s charm and romantic energy. 

Denman, as well, deserves credit for taking arguably the least likable role in the film and keeping him relatable. A weaker actor working from a lesser script would have Louie come off as little more than a heel.

“Puzzle,” however, treats the character evenhandedly. You may not sympathize with Louie’s attitude and the fear it comes from, but you’ll at least understand where it comes from, and recognize it as something innately human.

Worth seeing?

There’s nothing flashy about “Puzzle,” nothing that absolutely demands you spend a premium price to see it in a theater.

But you should anyway, because it’s that good without all the flashiness of bigger, louder movies.

It’s a fine example of character-driven storytelling featuring phenomenal performances that wholly deserve awards season attention later this year. Macdonald’s performance alone makes the film must-see material for the discerning film fan. 

If you came away from this summer’s onslaught on big budget blockbusters and heavyweight dramas feeling uninspired or underwhelmed, give this one a try.

It may be the missing piece of the puzzle you were looking for.

Puzzle

Starring Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman, Bubba Weiler, Austin Abrams, Liv Hewson. Directed by Marc Turtletaub.

Running time: 102 minutes

Rated R for language.

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