With Chocolat and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen under his belt, The Hundred-Foot Journey isn’t anything approaching new territory for director Lasse Hallström. But if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? Honestly, if he can continue making feel-good tales like this—bona fide crowd-pleasers—we should all be happy since it keeps him busy and away from the allure of helming a hat trick of Nicholas Sparks adaptations. There may be no surprises in this cinematic version of a novel Oprah Winfrey selected as part of her 2010 summer reads (she produces the film, too), but sometimes that’s exactly what the doctor ordered. It gets a little shaky during the third act turning into culinary sci-fi horror, but it pairs nicely with Chef to make this a summer of food.
I’m not sure what the background is for screenwriter Steven Knight getting a crack at Richard C. Morais‘ book, but it’s an inspired choice for the man behind Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, and this year’s Locke. The story is darker than expected at times so it’s not without it’s “Steven Knight” moments per se, but it’s ultimately about an aspiring chef living and working with his overzealous Indian father across the street from a Michelin Star-winning gourmet restaurant in a small French town. The drama here is the back and forth between Om Puri‘s Papa and Helen Mirren‘s Madame Mallory sabotaging each other’s nights by buying all of the one ingredient the other needs for his/her menu. The rest is pure stranger in a strange land delight.
That stranger is young Hassan (Manish Dayal), a self-proclaimed cook with a tragic past whose schooling came from his mother back in Mumbai. Seeking asylum in London after political strife forced them from India, the lackluster vegetable selection in England has the whole family heading through Europe for a new start. A fateful automobile snafu lands them exactly where they need to be in France as Papa forks over the money to buy a building against his children’s wishes. Mansur (Amit Shah) and Mahira (Farzana Dua Elahe) are desperate to steer Papa away from real estate literally 100 feet from a restaurant without compare, but he hears the voice of his late wife and she says to stay. With Hassan in the kitchen the sky is the limit—not only for their family, but Madame Mallory too.
I was quite taken by the first three quarters of the film set on this quaint street as “war” breaks out between these two restaurants while the Mayor (Michel Blanc) fills his stomach on food each time he’s called to settle a dispute or complaint. A burgeoning romance quickly hits Hassan and Mallory’s sous chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), one that could have become trite and cliché rather than its welcomingly combative trajectory. Racism and hate arrives to mirror the same horrors Papa’s clan faced back home, working to thaw differences and align characters onto the paths necessary to reach their inevitable ends. And stubborn conflict can’t help but transform into friendship once a year passes to show just how similar the aging restaurateurs are while we watch decadent cuisines made before our eyes.
The casting is great—especially with the Haji family. Shah and Dua Elahe are relegated to comic relief as the voice of reason and pretty face, but they bring their two-dimensional roles to life. Puri’s Papa is relentless when his mind is set with a wonderfully deep laugh and biting sarcasm to disarm even his most deceitful acts. He steals many scenes with this larger than life persona while also providing a nice contrast to Hassan’s introspective genius. Dayal possesses the infectious charm and forlorn sorrow America grew to love in Josh Radnor‘s Ted from How I Met Your Mother. His Hassan is the dreamer we relate to, in love with his craft and the sort of person you can’t stop wanting to help no matter how much doing so may ruin your own chance at success.
This realization hits Marguerite hardest and Le Bon must balance the obvious emotions she has for this newcomer against her own aspirations towards greatness. They create a fantastic relationship bred on competition and respect, one that grows into angry scowls and fierce whisking before smiles and congratulations are shared for that day’s winner. The same goes for the evolving rapport between Papa and Madame with their duality of ruthlessness and admiration. Mirren is great in the role, although I do question why the filmmakers would choose to cast an iconic Brit—she was the Queen after all—in a French role when Catherine Deneuve or Isabelle Huppert would have done nicely. It’s a moot point, though, and I guess she does deserve applause for making me forget she even had a French accent by the midway point.
Everything that happens does so purposefully to get to the next checkpoint, but in a naturalistic way thanks to the humor and performances. The necessary crisis of faith comes at a time when I thought the movie was over—and in the form of a scary science-infused gastro cuisine that couldn’t have appealed to me less—but you accept its inclusion to ultimately get to the only finish this story could have. Conflict comes from within Hassan and his supporting players save a couple instances of over-arching villainy born more from ignorance than evil, so you do have to buy into the boy’s mix of innocence and arrogance. Thankfully, it’s an easy thing to do and the journey proves satisfying in return.
The Hundred-Foot Journey opens wide on Friday, August 8th.