Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Hundred-Foot Journey has one of the strongest first halves of any film in 2014, filled with strong social commentary, developed characters, and an exquisitely articulated love for food. It’s a shame, then, that the second half falls into conventional, simplistic trappings and develops an aimless attitude for its final half hour. But the film is always marked by its charm and affable nature, using food as a means of culture and identity alongside terrifically defined lead characters. Helen Mirren is shown as the star of the film yet, while terrific, she is not the takeaway. Newcomers Manish Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon are delightful and fall into their roles with ease, with the ever-talented Om Puri providing a dynamic and funny supporting turn. As the story opens, Papa (Om Puri) leads the Kadam family away from their previously disrupted life and moves them from India to France in hopes of starting anew. A fire destroyed their restaurant and killed their mother, so they aim to find happiness in starting again on the French countryside.
Their car breaks down and they are passed by a young French woman named Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). She offers to help them and bonds with Hassan (Manish Dayal), to whom she offers cooking books and other guides to help him learn about French cuisine. With their love of food propelling their decisions, Hassan and his father decide to buy an abandoned restaurant against the will of the rest of the family. The place needs a lot of upkeep and will certainly need to advertise plenty to get the attention of French eaters. After all, an Indian restaurant in the middle of the French landscape won’t exactly scream “appealing” to farmers and fine diners. To make matters worse, just one hundred feet across the road is a French restaurant with a Michelin Star, run with an iron fist by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). She ensures that everything goes her way and has one of the most certifiably telling palates in the country.
The story eventually moves toward the Kadam family’s success and follows Hassan’s journey to becoming a chef in Madame Mallory’s kitchen. He’s one of the most talented cooks she’s seen, even if she refuses to admit it, and he knows how to win her over. Marguerite tells Hassan of how Madame tests cooks in only one way before deciding if they have the potential to be great: they must cook her an omelet and she will try one bite. In that bite, she can see their future as a chef. The narrative develops through these quirks and identifiers of character. Mirren makes Mallory a stone-faced enigma, borderline unreadable for the first half of the film, and it works perfectly for the narrative. As the story doles out more information on the inherent sadness behind her character, the story becomes stronger due to her character’s actions having more gravitas. Her pursuit of love in the film’s closing moments, however, fall flat in terms of impact because it takes an easier path for the character. Her pain drives her passion.
What shines through the film’s late contrivances is its thematic consistency. These characters love food and aim to find a way to rekindle old feelings and tastes through their cooking; Hassan’s pursuit leads to a stark realization that that idea may not be as it seems. Director Lasse Hallström, who has had enjoyably light efforts like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen over the past few years, shows a marked improvement in how to visually tell a story. The first half is marked by sweeping cinematography and fully realized scenes; the camera moves dynamically across the frame and showcases depth-of-field and mise-en-scene remarkably. And his actors, Manish Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon, are both strongly represented as equals in the food world that begin to fall in love over common interests. Yet the film meanders in the last half of its 122 minutes, taking easy paths and failing to challenge social stereotypes like it promises. Despite those inconsistencies, it still remains a pleasant, moving watch that excels due to its clear respect for the characters and their passions.
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)