D: Lasse Hallström / 122m
Cast: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon, Amit Shah, Farzana Dua Elahe, Dillon Mitra, Aria Pandya, Michel Blanc, Clément Sibony
Fleeing Mumbai after the loss of their restaurant in a fire that also claimed the life of their matriarch, the Kadam family – Papa (Puri), sons Mansur (Shah), Hassan (Dayal), and Mukhtar (Mitra), and daughters Mahira (Elahe) and Aisha (Panda) – first seek asylum in England but find their new home unsuitable for running a restaurant. They head for Europe, and while travelling through Europe, find themselves stranded in a small French village, Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, when their van breaks down. Helped by Marguerite (Le Bon), one of the locals, they spend the night there. In the morning, Papa notices an abandoned building that’s up for sale. A quick look at the premises reveals the perfect site for a restaurant.
However, the site is directly opposite Le Saule Pieureur (the Weeping Willow), a Michelin star restaurant owned and run by Madame Mallory (Mirren). She is less than happy to see the Kadam’s open their own restaurant, and does all she can to sabotage their efforts to make Maison Mumbai a success, including buying all their menu’s main ingredients at the local market. This leads to a culinary war of attrition between Madame Mallory and Papa as they try to outdo each other. But Maison Mumbai flourishes, thanks to Hassan who has the makings of a great chef. He begins a romance with Marguerite and starts to learn how to cook French cuisine, albeit with infusions of spices and different flavours.
One night, Maison Mumbai has graffiti sprayed on its outer wall and its interior is fire-bombed. Hassan chases off the culprits but suffers burns to his hands and legs. Madame Mallory fires her chef (who was responsible for the attack) and voluntarily cleans the graffiti; this leads to a rapprochement between her and Papa. Hassan sees a chance to put his culinary skills to the test and “auditions” for Madame Mallory by getting her to make an omelette under his instruction (Hassan has learnt from Marguerite that this is the way Madame Mallory tests any potential new chefs). She recognises his skill and he accepts a job in her kitchen. Papa is dismayed by this turn of events, but not as much as Marguerite, who cools toward Hassan and their relationship becomes more adversarial than romantic. Hassan’s food is a success and with it comes the possibility that, thirty years after gaining her Michelin star, Madame Mallory will attain her second.
Adapted by Steven Knight – writer/director of Locke (2013) and Hummingbird (2013) – from the novel by Richard C. Morais, The Hundred-Foot Journey is a feelgood movie that ticks all the boxes on its way to a predictably life-affirming finale, but which remains entirely likeable thanks to the breeziness of its set up, a handful of pleasing performances, and the sure hand of Hallström at the tiller. It’s not a movie to change the way anyone sees the world (though it might inspire some budding chefs out there), but rather is the cinematic equivalent of a comforting three-course meal.
Movies about the importance of food and how it can bring people together occupy a distinct dramatic sub-genre, and The Hundred-Foot Journey (the distance between both restaurants) is just as aware of its responsibilities to the audience as any other culinary-based drama. So we have lots of lovingly filmed shots of food being prepared, tasted and eaten, along with satisfied grins and knowing smiles (though thankfully no one actually rubs or pats their belly). This movie’s own particular hook, the fusion of French and Indian cuisines, isn’t focused on as much as you might expect. It’s a bit of a one-way street, with French dishes being given the upgrade treatment, as if they’re on the way to becoming moribund. At one point, Hassan adds spices to a recipe that’s two hundred years old and when Madame Mallory challenges him, his reply is to imply that perhaps it’s about time the recipe should be changed. And yet there’s no attempt to take Indian cuisine and introduce any French influences. (It’s a brave movie that is willing to say that classic French cuisine needs shaking up.)
The various relationships are handled with an appropriately genial approach, the initial animosity between Madame Mallory and Papa leading to mutual respect which in turn leads to their dancing together (and we all know what that leads to). Mirren is haughty and imperious, and pulls off a passable French accent, though it’s like watching her as the Queen but in charge of a restaurant instead of a country. Puri is as curmudgeonly as ever, but with a big heart beneath all the business bluster; it’s a softer version of his role in East Is East (1999), and like Mirren he goes along with the tried-and-trusted nature of the material. As the ever-experimenting Hassan, Dayal imbues the character with an earnest, willing-to-please demeanour that doesn’t quite gel with his desire to succeed. It’s an agreeable performance that again meets the needs of the movie, but could have been beefed up (excuse the pun). Le Bon at least gets the chance to act against expectations, Marguerite’s antipathy towards Hassan’s success being the only example of a character not behaving as anticipated.
Hallström assembles all the various ingredients with his usual lightness of touch and keeps things from becoming too sentimental (though there’s a liberal amount of sugar sprinkled throughout). The drama is affected as a result – Hassan’s burnt hands and his quick, virtually pain-free recovery become almost incidental to what follows, the clash of cultures barely resonates – and remains superficial from start to finish, the various setbacks and problems the characters have to deal with proving too easy to overcome on every occasion. The movie is beautifully lensed by Linus Sandgren (though some of the matte effects are a little too obvious for comfort), and the French locations provide the perfect backdrop for the action (viewers with a good memory will recognise Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val from 2001’s Charlotte Gray). And A.R. Rahman’s score adds energy to the proceedings, but isn’t enough to offset the dependable nature of the story.
Rating: 5/10 – there are other, better culinary dramas out there – Babette’s Feast (1987), The Secret of the Grain (2007) – but The Hundred-Foot Journey doesn’t aim as high as those movies and treads a more predictable, well-worn path instead; everyone does just enough to make it entertaining but by the end you’ll be wanting more than it’s menu is able to provide.