By far the best film to go into wide release this weekend in theaters and yet destined to struggle to get the attention it deserves, this little Disney gem of a film stars Helen Mirren in a role refreshingly unlike the Helen Mirren we've been seeing as of late as Madame Mallory, the proprietess of a Michelin starred restaurant in Southern France called Le Saule Pleureur. Madame Mallory's seemingly idyllic existence in the quaint, picturesque village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val is thrown into an upheaval with the arrival of the Kadam family and their decision to open an Indian restaurant, the Maison Mumbai, a mere one hundred feet away from Le Saule Pleureur. Helmed by the cantankerous Papa (Om Puri) and featuring his culinary-gifted son Hassan (Manish Dayal), Maison Mumbai, quickly becomes the object of Madame Mallory's icy scorn until Hassan crosses the line due to his love of French cuisine and a certain sous chef (Charlotte Le Bon) leads to a softening of the rivalry. When Madame Mallory discovers that, indeed, Hassan is an incredibly gifted young chef with a vibrance and imagination that captures the spirit of cooking, she takes him under her wing and The Hundred-Foot Journey becomes a film with tremendous warmth and heart as one might expect from director Lasse Hallstrom, producer Steven Spielberg and, of course, Walt Disney Studios.
For those who aren't particularly fond of feeling emotionally manipulated by a film or a filmmaker's vision, The Hundred-Foot Journey could very well prove to be a maddening experience as it is a film that radiates intentional warmth, heart, and relational substance. This isn't your usual summer fare, because it cares far too much about the people whose story it is telling and it takes the time to let you get to know them.
Hallstrom has long been one of my favorite directors even with his more lesser known fare, though I will confess that I found his detour into a couple of Nicholas Sparks adaptations to be mundane and pointless. While his last critically acclaimed film was The Cider House Rules, films such as Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and An Unfinished Life still had enough Hallstrom within them that I appreciated them even if I didn't quite celebrate them on the usual level. The Hundred-Foot Journey isn't a perfect film, but it's a return to film for Hallstrom and it's a good enough film that I find myself wanting to have all of my intelligent, sensitive, and relational friends rush over to the theater to catch it so we can ensure that it hangs around for a few more weeks. This is the kind of film that one usually finds existing only within a Landmark Theater and it's rather exciting to see it distributed by Disney and getting a chance at a wider audience.
The film also continues Disney's recent trend towards a greater embrace of cultural diversity. Of course, anyone with half a brain knows that this is more than a little bit inspired by the growing international box-office but I have to believe there's something else going on as Disney is giving films such as this one and the under-appreciated Million Dollar Arm a solid distribution.
While Mirren is still her usual icy and serious self here in some ways, as the film progresses it becomes a bit of a return to form for Mirren as we're allowed to see a softer, funnier, and more endearing performance by Mirren and it's a side of her acting that we really haven't seen as much as of late. Om Puri, a fine Indian actor too often relegated to stereotypical roles, is a delicious delight as Papa. Mirren and Puri have a delightful, if somewhat forced, chemistry and their scenes together have that certain PG-rated bite that is less cutting and more just plain fun to watch. Manish Dayal also excels as Hassan, radiating a warmth and passion that fits the story and the scenery quite nicely.
The film is beautifully lensed by Linus Sandgren, who beautifully captures the French landscape while also working well with the production design team to give the a retro feeling despite our own awareness that it is set in the present. As a director, Hallstrom has never really been one for innovation and instead he simply tells decidedly human stories with an unabashed openness to heart and soul. There's nothing particularly surprising in The Hundred-Foot Journey, but a day after having seen it I find myself still smiling when I think of the film's characters, words, and images. I think, in the end, that's how Hallstrom really wanted it.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic