The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



Kelly Macdonald made her screen debut in Trainspotting back in 1996. Since then, she's worked steadily, proving herself to be dependable and versatile. Based on her work in Puzzle, which gives her the best role of her career, it might well be time to officially declare the actress a Cinematic Treasure.

Macdonald plays Agnes, an unhappy wife and mother who doesn't acknowledge just how unhappy she is. Her husband Louis (David Denman) is not a bad guy, although he's become complacent about their marriage, always assuming that she will cook his dinner and take care of his home. He's oblivious to her needs. For her birthday, someone gives her a puzzle, which she quickly puts together several times. Upon visiting a New York puzzle store to purchase another one, Agnes discovers somebody's ad seeking a partner for a competitive puzzling match. She answers the ad, meeting Robert (Irrfan Kahn). He trains her in the art of assembling puzzles as rapidly as possible. Agnes discovers an unexpected aptitude for it.

You can probably guess that, through this process, she discovers joy that hasn't been felt in many years. You can probably also guess that she hides her activity from Louis, fearing his disapproval. Guessing those things in no way diminishes the pleasure of watching what happens. Certain things occur within those parameters that you may not see coming, which ensures you want to follow this woman on her journey wherever it may lead.

Puzzle is very much a character study one that is probing and thoughtful. We quickly see that Agnes has put herself in a box of being a wife and mother, without ever stopping to ask whether those things still make her happy to the same degree that they used to. Her life is on autopilot, and only when she begins working with Robert does she realize how many of her own desires she has suppressed to focus on the desires of others. Over time, Agnes grows in confidence, going from shy and reserved to assertive and confident.

Macdonald makes that transition real. When we first meet her, there is no reason to assume that she will ever know how to take control. Putting puzzles together unlocks something buried deep inside. As Robert implies, puzzles make sense in a way life oftentimes does not, as pieces fit together perfectly and you get a complete image at the end. The actress takes that idea and applies it to Agnes's frame of mind, so we understand how things begin to make sense to her once she starts applying her puzzling skills to her daily existence. It's one of those performances that feels authentic to such a degree that you actually forget you're watching someone act.

Irrfan Khan also does excellent work, giving his character a slightly condescending quality. That makes interplay between Robert and the timid Alice fascinating. As the two get to know each other, the leads show how their guards drop. David Denman, meanwhile, walks a nice line as Louis. He's jerkish, but not a jerk. More like a guy who got comfortable in life and wants to make sure nothing ever changes to shake him out of that comfort.

Directed by Marc Turtletaub from a screenplay by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann, Puzzle shrewdly avoids making the big competition the climax of the story. This is not a film about whether or not Agnes wins the prize. Instead, you get to meet and spend time with a woman who gets to know herself in a way she hasn't for a very long time.

Watching how it happens with humor, heart, and Kelly Macdonald's magnificent performance at the helm makes for a very satisfying two hours.

( 1/2 out of four)

Puzzle is rated R for language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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