“Puzzle” is the missing piece in American blockbuster filmmaking. It’s about what Peter Parker’s Aunt May does with her days while Spider-Man is off saving the neighborhood, or how Clark Kent’s adoptive mother Martha feels about her life back in Smallville. So often, great actresses are relegated to playing the wives and girlfriends of heroic male protagonists, appearing only to bite their nails or fret by the phone amidst all the excitement. “Puzzle” focuses on the part of the story those films ignore, privileging the interior life of just such a woman via the unexpected mid-life discovery that she’s a jigsaw puzzle prodigy, and the independent streak that realization inspires.
It’s a small, subtle movie — like a Vermeer, painted on the head of a pin — conceived by a woman (Argentine director Natalia Smirnoff’s quiet, detail-oriented debut was a break-out at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival) and then handed over to a male director (“Little Miss Sunshine” producer Marc Turtletaub) for its sensitive, yet strangely airless English-language remake. That’s not to suggest a man can’t capture or appreciate the nuances of such a story (it’s a man who’s reviewing it, after all). From “Amelie” to “Aquarius,” there are countless examples of man-made movies that explore the unspoken hopes and dreams of female protagonists, but there’s no question that the original film’s appeal owes to the perspective of the woman who created it. Where “Rompecabezas” (“The Puzzle”) felt personal, its retelling seems patronizing — or at the very least pathetic, presented with the kind of solemnity you’d expect while reading a suicide note.
And yet, we should be grateful that it exists, if only because it affords a long-overdue leading role to Kelly Macdonald, the Scottish character actress who has so often played the sort of wife (“No Country for Old Men”) and servant roles (“Gosford Park”) that practically disappear into the wallpaper. Here, the wallpaper is too flashy for that to happen: When we meet Agnes (Macdonald), dutiful housewife and mother of two, she’s like a dun-colored moth no one notices as she prepares for a birthday party. It’s not until late in the festivities that we realize, with some surprise, that she cleaned the house, baked the cake, and did all the chores for her own celebration.
Among the presents, Agnes finds a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Where it might take the average person several days to assemble such a complicated puzzle, Agnes begins in the afternoon and finishes it before her husband (David Denman) comes home. Twice. It’s kinda perfect that the image on the puzzle is a world map, since Agnes has hardly ever left her tiny New Jersey microcosm. But now, she feels compelled, buying a train ticket to the Big Apple in order to buy a couple more puzzles. (Why she can’t get them in the suburbs is anybody’s guess — although so much of Agnes’ behavior feels like a tentative outreach toward the kind of experience and acknowledgement she’s always denied herself.)
Spotting an advertisement for a puzzle champion “desperately seeking” a partner, Agnes takes his number, but waits several hours before texting him: “I think I might be good at this.” That hesitation, coupled with a lack of confidence in herself, are simultaneously Agnes’ most endearing and depressing qualities. It can be frustrating to watch someone so hesitant blooming as if in slow-motion, and yet, small clues suggest that her puzzle skill may be the tip of some greater genius (at the very least, it’s an indication that her brain is capable of so much more than the menial existence it was previously permitted).
Agnes’ dilemma is familiar enough, as a fundamentally selfless woman tentatively gives herself permission to pursue her own pleasure (as one IMDb commenter pointed out, the film “Queen to Plan” tells practically the same story, with chess in place of puzzles). In a mark of uncommon complexity for such stories, Agnes’ husband is depicted as a decent man, rather than an abusive cheat. “Why didn’t you ever divorce him?” her son (Austin Abrams) has the nerve to ask at one point. It’s a surprising question, since he’s doting, faithful, never violent, but hopelessly provincial. He adores his wife, but doesn’t do that thing that comes naturally to anyone in love: putting himself in her shoes, wondering what she’s doing with her time.
And what’s she’s doing is discovering herself, slowly, through the admiring gaze of her new puzzle partner (“The Lunchbox” star Irrfan Khan), whose own wife has just ditched him. The romance that arises there doesn’t quite work, if only because Macdonald’s character is so introverted and old-fashioned. Sneaking out practically on tiptoe, her trips to New York are not quite those of an Amish person’s Rumspringa, but the equivalent of a woman raised in a house with no mirrors who finally glimpses a full-length reflection of herself (alternately, you could force a jigsaw-puzzle metaphor, but the movie isn’t that neatly contrived). Frankly, it’s hard to imagine anything more yawn-worthy than watching two people assemble puzzles — and neither actor is particularly convincing as being good at it. But that’s hardly the point.