Macdonald is a perfect fit in this seemingly easygoing drama.
Jigsaw puzzles offer an obvious metaphor. Something is broken up into pieces and then put back together. That’s basically the structure of all great drama, only in most instances the picture isn’t the same in the end as when it began. The most famous use of jigsaw puzzles in a movie is Citizen Kane’s montage of Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander miserably passing the time with the hobby. There the symbolism is anything but subtle, but it’s also not explicitly stated, though there is a line at the end linking those puzzles to the mystery of a man’s life.
Surprisingly, jigsaw puzzles haven’t been too prominent in cinema in the more than 75 years since the release of Kane. Maybe the metaphor is really too on the nose. And that’s when a film is just featuring a puzzle as a prop, maybe to showcase a character trait if not fully tread into layered text. For Marc Turtletaub’s Puzzle, which is based on the 2009 Argentine film of the same name (translated from the Spanish title Rompecabezas), jigsaw puzzles are as significant as can be, both literally and symbolically, and most of the symbolism is even exposited out loud.
Yet the movie isn’t as stiff and insipid as it sounds. Thanks mostly to a natural and lived-in performance by Kelly Macdonald, who plays a housewife with a newfound skill for jigsaw puzzles. After receiving a 1000 piecer for her birthday and easily and quickly putting it together, Agnes seeks more and happens upon a want ad looking for a partner for a national jigsaw puzzle competition. Irrfan Khan plays Robert, the reigning singles champion now desiring a teammate for a doubles contest, and Agnes is a perfect fit to his needs. He, in turn, is the piece of her life she never knew she was missing.
Or is he? Maybe just as the flipside of a double-sided puzzle? I’m not actually certain that this movie so full of and inspired by jigsaw puzzles views them in a good light, at least as a symbol. When we first see Agnes put together her gift, she solves the puzzle multiple times in a row as if it’s just another routine task, like doing the laundry or dishes. There’s a fresh kind of satisfaction that she gets from completing the exercise, however, same as with her secret partnership with Robert. He shows her new ways to live her life and piece things together, as it were, and even explains to her why it is she likes doing the puzzles. Why it turns her on, as he puts it.
Puzzle isn’t a movie about someone finding what’s missing from her life, though. It’s about a woman learning that life doesn’t have to be a single picture enclosed inside of a border. There’s not one right way to put a jigsaw puzzle together or one right way to put your life together. Another name for the movie could be Free-Will Hunting, because Agnes is an underachieving prodigy of sorts who suddenly steers herself on a new course. But it doesn’t have to be another path towards love. This is never Robert’s story, and so Agnes’ journey has to be about her own independence.
Macdonald is perfect in the role. She’s always been good for portraying meek but capable women — servants and abused wives and common young women speaking out of turn at political summits and such — so at first, she does just seem typecast as Agnes. But it’s rare that she leads and holds a movie on her own as she does with Puzzle. It’s not a showy performance and not very talky. But Macdonald is expressive and exudes feeling in a way that says more than any dialogue she speaks. Still, she also allows Agnes to be a bit of an enigma to the end. The characters around her, including her husband and grown sons (David Denman, Bubba Weiler, and Austin Abrams), are all just parts of a picture of her. A picture she’s finally favoring be incomplete and open so she can finally truly live. And for the audience, be surprising.
There’s an easiness to the story, same as the original film, in having Agnes’ kids be grown up with their futures somewhat secure. There’s no invitation for any viewers to judge her decisions as a mother. The movie doesn’t go for the simple setup of giving her an indisputably awful husband, either. Both decisions (initially made by filmmaker Natalia Smirnoff) keep the drive of the narrative to being wholly Agnes’ volition. She could leave her family or stay, and it’s still all about her, not what outside force or surrounding piece might be holding or pushing her.
That makes Puzzle out to be even more of a feminist film than the usual tales of unhappy housewives, particularly those resulting in new romances for the protagonist. It’s probably especially more feminist, in fact, for Agnes’ character and choices to not have anything to do with womanhood, ultimately. She’s an individual. This is something not simply put together but is clear when the very last piece of the movie is in place. And as such, Agnes is one of the most respectable and believable and satisfyingly human characters in a fiction film this year.