Written by Ankit Ojha
What to Expect
How long has it been since we’ve all had an absolutely heartfelt movie? For the writer of this review, the last absolutely well made one – ironically enough, for this particular film which is being reviewed – was Chef. Taking into account, however, the way the film has been plated thus, the last movie this writer thinks the audience might have been swept up with would probably have to be Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo. Crowe’s adaptive account of a true story was filled with delicate frames, effortless performances and a fantastic background score to enhance the scenes more than anything else.
This is exactly where Lasse Hallström comes in. Apart from being a director of inherently feel-good films like Casanova and Chocolat, he’s known for his distinct style of presenting the movies he directs with beautiful, romanticized imagery that bodes well with the emotion the films have to send across. People who have seen the film Hachi: A Dog’s Tale would definitely agree to the above trademarks Hallström exhibits. Heck, I could definitely tolerate a film like Safe Haven, mostly because of the way the film was presented, with an succinct emotional core, slightly less cheesier than the usual bout of Nicholas Sparks film adaptations are translated to be.
But of course, Hallström isn’t the only trump card of the film. There’s Helen Mirren, who – from the looks of it – is all set to charm the audiences. But that probably wouldn’t be surprising because – in the words of an absolutely interesting food blogger I got to talking with before the film – “you simply can’t go wrong with Helen Mirren” (sic). The film could also mark a possible return to form of the Academy award-winning Indian music composer A. R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) in these waters, as most of the films he has gotten to composing for post 127 Hours hasn’t managed to critically deliver a similar impact-worthy blow.
The only probable fear is if the film would succumb to the tropes of such feel-good cinema he’s been making for a long time now, along-with the already looming possibility of culture stereotypes.
What’s it About?
Here’s the thing. When fear strikes, you either face it, or you succumb to it and run. With everything lost in the fire of (possible) communal riots, Hassan and his family flee India, having a stopover at London before they finally land up in France. By a stroke of luck, they find a place to rent and open up a restaurant. Unfortunately for them though, the place they’re opening up is opposite a fairly popular Michelin-star restaurant owned by the haughty and stubborn Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren; Gosford Park), who locks horns with them to fight. Unbeknownst to them, the nature of their relationship, however, is set to take an aleatory turn.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
One of the most important things about Hallström is the way he tries to see beauty in everything around the universes of his consecutive movies. Stronger cinema of his (his adaptation of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules) uses delicate emotion to support the moving, impact-worthy themes he chooses to portray in his films. With this one too being an adaptation of a book by Richard C. Morais, the director approaches Steven Knight’s (Locke, Eastern Promises) adaptation with nothing but sparkling sincerity through and through. Now this may have been the fault of the source, but the issue with the story arc of the film would be that some viewers will have already known what is to happen at the end of the film. Besides this, the film consists of a disappointingly worked upon romantic arcs. Hassan and Marguerite are two vibrantly written and performed characters, and have great on-screen potential together, but before the chemistry builds up, an unnecessary conflict point is forced into the scene thereby ruining any potential moving forward. Their romance eventually reaches a fantastic high-point, but all of the leading up to it isn’t smooth. The change of emotions between them seems very abrupt. Also, while the story is quite direct, the biggest problem with it lies in the lack of focus. The storyline has four main characters who pivot around the narrative’s runtime – and it tries to be about all of these four characters. Eventually the focus does turn most on the young protagonist’s ambitious chef act, but there’s still a lot going on around him that makes the film slightly off-kilter.
On the plus side, Mirren’s character is a mighty enjoyable one, and will make the viewer want to know where she heads next. The one thing that will, however, more than make it up for a bunch of viewers will be the exuberant warmth the film showers upon them, aside from the finely framed and captured visuals of the landscape and the food prepared in the film. Linus Sandgren’s (American Hustle) beautiful cinematography combines beautifully framed moving imagery with the steady movement of shots, giving the viewers an absolutely delicious-looking movie. One thing that I could see – however – was probably the director’s apparent fascination to occasionally pitch in subjects in the centre like his probable inspiration Wes Anderson does. Now while the inspiration is not fully apparent, to the keen eye, it will be slightly evident. Moving on, the production design of the film is extravagant in beauty, yet quaint in nature. The art direction of the portions set in India are fairly functional, while it is the reels in Europe that make all the difference. Rahman’s music lends fantastic audible and emotional support to the film, giving the viewers a fair account of his early dreamy Indian-based trademarks. Add to that the movie’s delicate, consistent edit – and you’ve got yourself a finely crafted piece of technical sincerity.
To Perform or Not to Perform
Despite the movie’s inherent flaws in writing, it’s the performers who end up being the strong ones over here. Helen Mirren is someone you can simply not ignore in the movie. Her charm only seconds her power to glue you to the screen with the performance of Madame Mallory. Om Puri (Charlie Wilson’s War) delivers earnestness to a role that headily requires it. His nuanced performance helps add a couple of layers to the character he portrays. Manish Dayal is confident as Hassan and plays his character convincingly. Charlotte Le Bon delivers freshness as Marguerite. It’s quite a sad thing that their pairing had a lot of unused potential that showed a lot of sparks in its climax – which isn’t enough. Had the nature of the conflict been more justifiable or the build-up to romance been agreeable, their pairing could have gone in very different ways. Juhi Chawla in a short role is an efficient performer, but in the end you’re able to quickly deduce what is to happen of her, which can send an automatic impulse to stop investing on or caring about her character. The others are good.
Overall, this is a film with a lot of flaws in writing, potential character development and transition of acts, but there’s also a high chance Hallström’s direction will leave an emotional impact to a considerable amount of the audience. The film has warmth and is quite the effective family movie that can be enjoyed on quite a few different levels.
“Well this was way better than the book.”, marked Debbie, the food-blogger I whipped up a conversation with, as we walked out of the cinema. For a person who has always heard statements the other way round for a large number of book adaptations, this was quite something. Not that it did anything to better my opinion of the film’s writing, but it most definitely didn’t deter me from feeling fairly pleasant by the end of it all.
Star Rating: 2.5 / 5