Directed by Lasse Hallström
2 hours 2 minutes
Charlotte Le Bon
I haven't been getting out to the movies much lately because nothing appeals to me. Apparently not many others are getting out either because summer box office receipts are dismal. I have read no reviews of this film but have heard from others that they haven't been too kind. What?!?! This is not a perfect film but it certainly doesn't deserve to be raked over the coals.
Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey are among the producers of this charming, sentimental little film with its fable-like story-telling. It concerns a loving and close-knit Mumbai family, a widowed father and his five children, who, after a disaster in their home country, move to the Midi-Pyrenees region of France. In India they had a restaurant and have decided to open a new one, serving Indian delights, in their new country with a special emphasis on one son who has a special gift as a chef.
The problem is the location they choose is directly across the street in a beautiful village from a highly-prosperous French restaurant with one Michelin star and its haughty owner is not having any of it.
Mirren doesn't come into the film for awhile because the story wisely chooses to provide us with as much information as possible on the Indian family. It is their story not hers. She may be the top-billed star (another wise move, of course), but the real star is the son, played by handsome, South Carolina-born Manish Dayal.
Of course as is often the case with new restaurants, things don't go exactly as hoped for. Opening night certainly looked like a bust. Each restaurant owner can look out his or her window and see how the other guy is doing. Mirren's distaste for the interlopers is obvious and unpleasant.
If she is tough and stubborn, she is certainly met head on by the owner of the new restaurant. When he sees that she is out to sabotage his efforts, he quickly and easily concocts some of his own mayhem.
Perhaps one of the films shortcomings is how undeveloped her change-of-heart is. After some vandalism is thrust upon the Indian restaurant and Mirren concludes it was, in part, perpetuated by one of her employees, she becomes a different and far nicer person. Once, however, we got used to her change, it was a welcome one and provided far lighter and amusing moments.
At one point she takes a great shine to the son across the street after he expresses an interest in learning French cuisine and offers him an earn-while-you-learn position in her kitchen (the 100-foot journey). In the meantime, he finds the time to fall in love with her sous chef, played winningly by Charlotte Le Bron (looking a great deal like a young Winona Ryder).
One never has any doubt this will all end pleasantly for everyone. But before it did, I got a bit choked up in a couple of scenes but that is what I do in sweet films such as this one.
I am very fond of Lasse Hallström movies. There's What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, The Cider House Rules, The Shipping News, An Unfinished Life and of course, Chocolat, which this film bears more than a slight resemblance to. The director has a knack for films with lavish visuals and for faithful literary adaptations (here the book was written by Richard Morais).
It reminded me of a number of other films as well. Seeing Helen Mirren back in a kitchen recalls Gosford Park. Under The Tuscan Sun came to mind with respect to foreigners trying to make a go of it in a beautiful European locale while fixing up a property (a home in Tuscan Sun and a restaurant here). Seeing those classy British dames (Mirren, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright) work with young people from other countries reminded me of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Ladies in Lavender, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont and others. Frankly, I am a sponge for those classy British dames. It is also reminiscent of every food movie one has ever seen... Chocolat; Julie and Julia; Eat, Pray, Love and especially Big Night. There's no denying those delicious displays of epicurean delights are a special feature. (If you see it, I recommend not being hungry.)
The acting was uniformly good. The weight of the film is on young Manish Dayal's shoulders and I found him utterly charming. Mirren is never less than stellar although this was lightweight fare for her, I suppose. Om Puri was spot-on as her competitor but one of the film's shortcomings was an inability to understand his English. I considered it was my inability but as we walked out of the theater another patron asked me if I had trouble understanding him.
I certainly applaud the look of the film... from the welcoming look of the countryside to the elegant look of the French restaurant to the splashy interiors of the Indian establishment to the intimate feel of the closeups of the actors to the many hunger-inducing, colorful shots of the food.
I loved one scene in particular. On the one hand it was a collage of glimpses at various people dealing with anger as contrasted with various chefs and their large knives slicing and dicing different foods in preparation for upcoming meal selections. Most effective.
I expect some will find the sometimes slow pace and the film's overall length not to their liking or the sentimentality but none of it bothered me in the slightest. I was willing to stick around for dessert.
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