Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) is lost.
Not physically necessarily; in fact, as you watch her walk, automata-like, through her daily routine of housework, church meetings, religious observance, and even waking up where the sameness of waiting for the alarm to go off is a thing of exquisite drudgery in and of itself, everything seems as found as it can get, too found really.
But deep down where the soul resides, and the heart and mind keep their secrets safe, Agnes is as lost as you can get, lost in others, lost in expectations, lost in assumptions of what she should and shouldn’t do.
The great pleasure of Puzzle, directed by Marc Turtletaub to a screenplay by Oren Moverman, is watching Agnes find herself, often surprisingly, against her own resistance, shedding her ideas of what is proper and right and not always sure if she knows where she’s going or if she wants to head there.
This extraordinary timidity-rupturing journey is triggered by a jigsaw puzzle, an artefact of childhood, or so people like Agnes’ benignly-neglectful and oft-times outright selfish husband of at least 20 years, Louie (David Denman) says, that Agnes is given as a present by her Aunt Emily.
It almost goes unnoticed in the hurly-burly of Agnes’ birthday party, an event that she cleans for, prepares for, decorates and caters for, and yes, ultimately cleans up, a pattern for her life where Louis is a 1950s macho-relic bystander, expecting his every whim to be catered for even as he proclaims his undying love for his wife (it’s a love that real, no doubt, but it exists in words only with deeds noticeably absent of his supposed passion).
In the aftermath of an event she almost sleepwalks through, in common with the rest of her life, she picks up the puzzle and opens it up, exposing 1000 pieces that tumble onto the table, ripe with pictorial possibility, and as it turns out, impossible-to-imagine life changes.
While it’s not immediately obvious in that moment of a physical and emotional solitude Agnes is all too accustomed to, opening that puzzle is like pushing into a whole new chapter of her life, as she discovers that not only does she love doing jigsaw puzzles but she’s damn good at them.
And most importantly for Robert (Irrfan Khan), she’s fast. Really, really fast.
Fast enough in fact that Robert, a wealthy divorced entrepreneur with time on his hands, and an emotional vacuum that needs filling, straight away asks her to be his puzzle partner for the national championships when Agnes, curious about this new world, comes to see exactly what it is he’s after.
She’s taken aback by the speed of his decision-making and his boundless enthusiasm and openness, but then hers is a world repressed, sealed down so tight that every move seems considered, every thought an agony, every steps outside the carefully-circumscribed parameters of her life almost a sin.
Sin, real or imagined and there is both in Puzzle, at least as devoutly-Catholic Agnes interprets it, is a constant theme in this beautifully-wrought and deeply-thoughtful film that asks whether challenging the established precepts of our life is ever a bad thing.
As Agnes opens up to the possibilities of a life on her own terms, one where she is able to make decisions – Louie rather cavalierly makes decisions left, right and centre, a dynamic Agnes has long acquiesced to but one which begins to rankle as she grapples with the seditious idea that she is allowed to make decisions too – and do her own thing, other long-hidden, or ignored, emotions bubble forth.
Soon Agnes, a listless mainstay of her conservative community, where missing a church meeting of all things is a scandalous act worthy of note, shocks Louie and her similarly-repressed eldest son Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and self-obsessed younger son Gabe (Austin Abrams) with her new-found willingness to speak her mind.
It’s a glorious upsetting of the established apple cart, and Agnes is both enlivened and horrified by it, a conflict that grows still stronger when it becomes clear Robert sees her as more than just a puzzle partner and that she may feel the same way back.
That’s quite a lot of change engineered by one jigsaw puzzle but as it unfolds in quiet, nuanced ways big and small, and Agnes expands her world, not just beyond her hometown but regularly into New York City itself (her great dream is to go to Montreal) where Robert lives and they train, but within herself, it becomes clear that that birthday present is the catalyst a for long-needed, far-too-delayed personal revolution.
The delicious joy of this remarkable film, which almost never puts a foot wrong, is that all these great seismic shifts take place in the quietest of ways.
Puzzle is not a film that shouts its narrative shifts, intentions or existential twists-and-turns loudly from the rooftops; in fact, many of the great shifts that take place from Agnes embracing mobile phone technology to travelling regularly on the train to her ever-closer relationship with Robert and enmeshing in the world of competitive puzzle-making, are done in enervating bubble of timidity and hesitation that is Agnes life, a place so withdrawn into itself and others that this amazingly intelligent woman, long suppressed, seems all-too-often afraid of her own shadow.
At no point does Agnes dash forth into the fray, torch held high, voice aloud, awash with the thrill and excitement of the new and the just-discovered; much of the time she is afraid through thrilled of what she is finding out about herself, and Puzzle comes into its own as Agnes finally leaves the fear behind and comes to embrace, in her own restrained way, what it means find yourself after many years lost in everyone else.
Anchored by stellar performances by Macdonald who is superb as woman both thrilled about and fearful of the future, and Khan as a man who’s wants to re-discover his love of leaping into the welcoming abyss, Puzzle is a gem, a deliciously-wrought layered film full of insight, raw emotion and understandable restraint that never once pretends that life is easy to navigate or to make decisions about – in fact it’s welcomingly free of easily-delineated road to Damascus moments, mirroring the half-realised nature of much of life – but offers up the idea that it can surprise you, and that when it does, like Agnes, you may have a whole new world to discover, and perhaps, embrace.