Puzzle pairs cinema's two most placid performers — Kelly Macdonald and Irrfan Khan — and waits for the sparks to … to … .well, to move ever so slightly.
On screen, Macdonald and Khan are known for being able to achieve a remarkable degree of gravity through tranquility, and that's a nice skill to have, but it does raise concerns that the movie's resting heartbeat will be dangerously low.
There is a little of that, but mostly — as intended — the suggestion that these are two gentle souls, suitably matched. In the metaphorical language often employed by the movie, they are two pieces who fit together.
In the story this is awkward, as Macdonald's Agnes is inconveniently married and living in a suburban home in New Rochelle, N.Y. It's a deeply patriarchal household that seems to belong to another era, or perhaps another culture (the movie is adapted from an Argentinian movie, Rompecabezas).
Puzzle opens with Agnes cleaning up during a party, moving unnoticed among the busy guests even though the house is hers. Is Agnes put upon? No doubt, but we also see her ignoring and resisting the entreaties of guests and family to join the party. She is, by nature, uncomfortable in the spotlight.
This often causes her to be misread by her all-male family. Her self-involved eldest son (Bubba Weiler) has low regard for her meekness, which he mistakes for weakness. Her more sensitive youngest son (Austin Abrams) mistakes her efficient mastery of domestic responsibility, and the satisfaction she gets from it, for subservience. In an interesting wrinkle, her husband (David Denman) expects Agnes to stay within the prescribed boundaries of homemaker, but he also praises her lavishly and sincerely for being so good at it, and knows she's the rock that holds the household together.
Still, it would be a mistake to say this woman is happy — Macdonald sketches Agnes as a woman who simply does not see happiness as a huge priority. This changes when a jigsaw puzzle, of all things, enters her life. She completes it in minutes, learns that she has an unnatural aptitude for jigsaw-puzzle solving, and is soon sneaking off to New York to develop this new skill, under the tutorship of an eccentric Manhattan millionaire Robert (Khan), who develops her talent, and develops an ardent interest in her.
None of this is especially plausible. We know that Agnes is too careful, too smart, and too precise for the kind of tactical missteps we see her make as she tiptoes away from her old life. Still, Khan and Macdonald make it watchable. Khan has a matchless ability to up the impact of dialogue by slowing the tempo (like midcareer Morgan Freeman), and he does wonders here with some on-the-nose metaphors about puzzle-solving.
Elsewhere, the movie pivots away from clichés that we expect to grow from Agnes' participation in puzzle-solving tournaments, and allows Macdonald room to show her character's march toward a new sense of self.