Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey

It should come as no surprise that Lasse Hallström’s latest cinematic offering, The Hundred-Foot Journey, is as replete with the Swede’s trademark visual richness and narrative saccharinity as anything else in his bulging filmography. 

Following the observant, and critically acclaimed, 1993 feature, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Hallström’s career has become increasingly defined by beautifully rendered, if overly emotive, tearjerkers. The Cider Rules was a wonderfully elegant period piece which earned Michael Caine a deserved Academy Award, but it is safe to judge that the director — a veteran of literary adaptations — has applied its formula with decreasing success in the years since. 

In some ways then, The Hundred-Foot Journey (based on Richard C Morais’s source novel) is an apogee of the modern Hallström: undemanding themes, flawless photography, flawed plotting. Enjoyable and visually gorgeous, this choppy effort is carried along on the shoulders of a capable cast and a palette as rich as its culinary treats. 

At its centre is prodigal chef Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal). Home schooled in his mother’s kitchen, Hassan and his family relocate to Europe from their native Mumbai — illustrated, just to be safe, by bustling markets and the obligatory lilting sitars — following a devastating fire at their rustic eatery. Led by the stubborn Papa (Om Puri), the Kadam clan winds up in the south of France, via Holland and Germany, where fate intervenes to anchor it in the heartland of haughty French cuisine. Both gruff and flighty, Papa spots a ramshackle restaurant for sale, buys it up and muscles in on the patch of aloof, Michelin-obsessed restauranteur Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) in the process. 

In the early scenes, Hallström is in his element, the action cavorting around the outrageously picturesque surroundings of the nameless French locale, a place bathed, apparently, in an eternal golden hue. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camera soaks up a charmingly vivacious kaleidoscope of colour and it is no overstatement to label this 2014’s most aesthetically pleasing release. 

Less certain is the story itself. Far from being complex, Steven Knight’s script is coming down with stale clichés and a cloying sense of fate much removed from his earlier, gritty screenplays for the likes of Eastern Promises — Russian mobsters, sexual violence, naked shower-based knife fights — and the brilliantly tense Locke.

Indeed, the clash of cultures forms the picture’s only thoughtful element. One hundred feet separates the rival premises of Puri’s proud patriarch and Mirren’s scheming siren, though, very broadly, it also represents a chasm between two worlds. That heavy-handed dichotomy is overplayed but remains an amusingly executed running gag. It even gives way, naturally, to friendship and respect.

Beyond that, however, many of this gentle drama’s failings rest in its superficiality. What conflict there is feels forced, swiftly brushed away to make room for yet more scenery or another dollop of warm-hearted cod philosophy. While Hassan’s evolution is actually quite interesting — he embraces classical French cooking without losing sight of his equally refined roots — it is marked by pleasantly meaningless dialogue which says absolutely nothing of consequence. ‘The sea urchins taste of life,’ intones one character. ‘Food is memory,’ opines another. Okay then. 

Ironically enough, for all its keen gastronomical sensibilities — and this is a film obsessed with the workings of the kitchen — actual table-ready fare is noticeable by its absence. Save for a few snatches of meanly portioned nouvelle cuisine and delicious looking curries, Hallström appears to reckon that audiences will be excited by the mundanity of how meals are prepared and considered. As Hassan’s talents take him to Paris and a hilariously pretentious neon establishment which would not be out of place in The Matrix, food, increasingly glimpsed, becomes a chore: overwrought and expensive. It is an incredibly strange approach given the subject at hand. 

The latter arc is situated at the end of a film that seems substantially longer than its 122 minutes, a sensation undoubtedly accentuated by the myriad strands invading the foreground right up to the rolling of the end credits. Whole new plots are conjured from nowhere, each cutting off the chance to explore those other raised questions that remain hanging and unanswered. 

What do the locals think of the Indian flavours that Papa was so determined to introduce? From where in these sparsely populated surroundings are all the customers coming? Why is everyone speaking English? Minor queries they may be, but basic authenticity depends on such detail.

In spite of such obvious weaknesses, there is much to admire in an uplifting tale of family unity, one steeped in the belief that we are, to use a topical phrase, better together. 

The cast in particular is up to the task of presenting the unchallenging material with wit and enthusiasm. Puri, who gets all the best lines (‘He looks like a bloody terrorist’), is especially watchable as a bullish man convinced of his own superiority and his crackling interplay with Mirren is perhaps the best thing on the menu. Dame Helen aims for pantomime matron, sliding, often illogically, between French and English, but she is a classy a performer, incapable of cheap or nasty.

Dayal, too, possesses a greater number of layers than is initially suggested and if his romance with Charlotte Le Bon’s incredibly adorable, bicycle-riding Marguerite is laced with predictability from the beginning, the eventual iciness of their professional rivalry is infinitely more interesting. 

Ultimately, almost inevitably, Hallström’s newest project is as accessible as a curry down the high street and about as hard-hitting as the house korma. There is no kick to this dish.

An edited version of this article was first published here

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