When media titans like Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey are involved with a project there is always the risk of having it colored by their influence. Thankfully, one has to do a little bit of sleuthing to unearth their involvement in The Hundred-Foot Journey. The words “From Academy Award Winning Director Steven Spielberg” are mercifully nowhere in sight. Therefore, one is able to simply take the film for what it is, which is a surprisingly engaging albeit overlong look at topics as diverse as food, culture, love, family and cultural tension.
The poster for The Hundred-Foot Journey is dominated by one of cinema’s quintessential steel magnolias, Helen Mirren, a woman seemingly impervious to the effects of age and time. Mirren is the clear headliner of the film. However, her character, Madame Mallory, is really only a supporting part. The real focus of the story is the Kadam clan, an Indian family of cooks who immigrates to France due to violent political unrest at the beginning of the film.
The family is headed of Papa (Om Puri), an indomitable, stubborn old codger. When the family’s van breaks down outside of a small, picturesque town (which hugs the demarcation between France and Switzerland) he decides that it’s fate. He then decrees that the family should attempt to restart their restaurant business in a village where Indian cuisine is a new concept, and where the family’s presence is borderline unwelcome.
This draws the considerable ire of Mirren’s Madame Mallory, the proprietor of a Michelin-starred restaurant that is located adjacent to where the Kadam family begins to set up shop. As the film goes on Papa and Mallory soon descend into an acrimonious and intransigent struggle, even while Papa’s son Hassan (who is a cooking prodigy) and Mallory’s star sous chef Marguerite begin a flirtatious association.
The Hundred-Foot Journey’s charms do not come from its main storyline. While the dramatic conflict that erupts between the two restaurants is not exactly listless, it simply doesn’t contain anything all that revelatory. Additionally, once the tension inevitably breaks the film loses a great deal of its narrative momentum, which introduces a third act that feels a tad overlong, despite the inherent likability of the characters.
What is far more successful than the film’s narrative drive is the evocative nature of the story’s thematic content, the lushness of the photography, the soulful use of music and the clear talent of the film’s central cast. At the center of this is director Lasse Hallstrom, who with this film (in addition to other titles like The Cider House Rules, Salmon Fishing on Yemen, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and The Shipping News) has proven himself to be one of the most consistent filmmakers of mainstream cinema.
Everything within The Hundred-Foot Journey reflects this sort of beautiful albeit unchallenging accomplishment. The work of Linus Sandgren for example effectively captures the rustic vistas of Southern France in all their glory. Yet, it is his staging of the various cooking scenes – particularly the intense close-ups of various scrumptious-looking ingredients – that leave the greatest impression, both for the eyes and for the stomach.
These shots serve as the nexus for the film’s thematic structure, which explores how food is a method through which cross-cultural interaction can occur. Sandgren’s camera fawns over shots of cracking eggs and rich spices, unequivocally establishing the subject’s importance in the lives of the film’s characters.
With food being seen as a uniting force by the film, it is no wonder that one of the story’s main subjects is the relationship between Marguerite, who is played by Charlotte Le Bon and Hassan, portrayed by Manish Dayal. Both of these characters share an intense love for cooking; a similar ambition for professional greatness; and both clearly were winners in the genetic lottery. It is understandable that a bond forms between them. It is to the credit of the actors that the chemistry between the characters feels light and believable. Neither one of them seems willing to rely solely on the power of their looks to sell the relationship.
However, similar to the film itself, in the later sections of the story this dynamic does become slightly lethargic. Conflict inevitably arises between the pair and the conclusion is anything but overwhelming. This late act problem is present in the arcs of other characters as well, particularly Mirren’s Madame Mallory. The formidable actress creates an imposing, frosty battleax in her character’s first scenes, but the character’s transformation is so dramatic that it becomes nearly unbelievable at certain moments. While change is obviously an essential component for any cinematic character, Mallory is a prime example of how film quite often asks for a staggering suspension of disbelief.
Still, sometimes problems with narrative momentum or character transformations are simply eclipsed by the potent likability of a piece; such is the case with The Hundred-Foot Journey. While their presence as producers is somewhat aggravating, one can understand what drew the likes of Oprah and Spielberg to the project. And, considering that it is successful artistically, one can appreciate their support with getting it made. It’s a rare thing these days to find a moderately budgeted film not based on a high concept or obsessed with getting awards attention. The current movie-going culture is hostile to such works. Thankfully, enough people were willing to take a risk with The Hundred-Foot Journey, and its well-made celebration of life is a welcomed reprieve from yet another wretched summer of superhero malaise.