THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY Movie Review – Epicurean Delights, Narrative Non-Delights
A specialist in mid-budget, middle-brow, edge-free entertainment, Lasse Hallström (Safe Haven, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, My Life as a Dog) makes his almost yearly return to multiplexes with The Hundred-Foot Journey, an adaptation of Richard C. Morais’ 2010 sprawling, subplot-heavy novel. The Hundred-Foot Journey manages to overcome an unfocused, rambling, clumsily plotted narrative—a common problem typical of lesser novel-to-film adaptations—to offer not just the expected (and obligatory) epicurean delights (each one an award-worthy visual effect), but an occasionally poignant, insightful exploration of the immigrant experience, of strangers (Indians, asylum-seeking refugees) in a strange land (France, the center of the haute cuisine universe), and the compromises, adjustments, and changes they make, either by choice or circumstance, to their new literal and metaphorical homes.
Despite the marketing, Helen Mirren’s character, Madame Mallory, the owner-proprietor of a Michelin-approved (1-star) restaurant located in a picturesque French town, Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, isn’t the central character or protagonist in The Hundred-Foot Journey. In fact, she doesn’t make her onscreen entrance for the better part of 20 minutes. Instead, The Hundred-Foot Journey unfolds, at least initially, as a familiar story of immigration from India to France (by way of London, England), the result of political unrest (left purposely undefined by Hallström and his screenwriter, Steven Knight). While the family matriarch makes only a fleeting appearance in a flashback (she perishes in a fire), her presence is felt throughout The Hundred-Foot Journey, as a semi-tangible presence guiding the patriarch’s (Om Puri) decisions, up to including the seemingly impetuous decision to open an Indian restaurant across the street from Madame Mallory’s, and the second-oldest son, Hassan (Manish Dayal), the family’s most talented cook.
Hassan quickly emerges as the protagonist, the center of both the family and the narrative. Naturally inquisitive and boundary-pushing, Hassan befriends—and later attempts to romance—Madame Mallory’s sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). Marguerite offers Hassan entry into the world of French cuisine via books and impromptu culinary classes. Their relationship suffers, however, when Marguerite recognizes, perhaps too late, not just Hassan’s talent culture-mixing recipes, but as a rival for Madame Mallory’s kitchen. It’s there that The Hundred-Foot Journey veers away from a familiar story of culture clash—though that’s certainly there, mostly through the hyperbole-prone exclamations of Hassan’s father and Madame Mallory—into a story about the shifting desires and demands, the duties and obligations, and the individualism versus traditionalism conflict experienced by immigrants and their first-generation children, born or acculturated into the adopted country’s values.
Hallström, of course, knows his target audience and their expectations from a food-centered film like The Hundred-Foot Journey. He never lets the tone get too heavy, minimizing the darker implications of Hassan and his family’s journey through periodic injections of humor or mouth-watering shots of the various meals and their ingredients Hassan and Madame Mallory’s staff prepare throughout the film. Hallström doesn’t linger on any of the central or secondary conflicts, resolving them without a hint of melodrama. When, inevitably, The Hundred-Foot Journey turns on Hassan’s future as a chef apart from his family and even Madame Mallory, it also loses much of its charms, rushing through key plot points in a ham-fisted manner to arrive at the expected, intended result. The last half hour feels tacked on, the result of Hallström and Knight’s obvious attempt to remain faithful to Morais’ novel. It’s an error in judgment that negatively impacts or blunts much of The Hundred-Foot Journey’s visual and narrative pleasures. Those pleasures might be surface-deep, but they’re still pleasures.
Thankfully, Hallström’s talent for directing warm, engaging performances from his actors, albeit a significantly easier task given the cast involved, remains unchanged. Mirren plays the imperious Madame Mallory with just the right touch of burgeoning self-awareness and without the camp or parody another, lesser actress might use to make her more likeable or tolerable for moviegoers. Both Dayal and Le Bon share an easygoing chemistry in their scenes together, making the inevitable result less cloying than it otherwise could have been. Puri is at his best when he’s playing the cantankerous, rigid patriarch and occasional source of embarrassment for his swiftly assimilating children. He falters, however, when his character undergoes the predictable thawing, specifically toward Madame Mallory. The other members of Hassan’s family never emerge as three-dimensional characters, but that’s less due to their individual performances than the restricting, restrictive demands of a two-hour running time and the focus on Hassan, his father, Marguerite, and Madame Mallory.