Shakespeare famously made fun of the notion of a sighing lover creating an ode “to his mistress’ eyebrow.” But it would take Shakespeare to do justice to Helen Mirren as a French woman of impeccable bearing who is able to punctuate her declarations with a perfect circumflex of that divine eyebrow, exquisitely conveying the steely authority that comes not just from being the boss but from being right.
Producers Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Steven Knight, and director Lasse Halström have adapted the book by Richard C. Morais into a cozy saga along the lines of Halström’s “Chocolat,” about a cross-cultural competition that turns into an alliance. Every sunbeam, every garnish, and yes, every eyebrow is presented exactly comme il faut, and it has Mirren’s splendid performance. And yet, for a story that is about the importance of excellence and innovation, it feels a little, well, under-spiced and overcooked.
Manish Dayal plays Hassan, the son of an Indian family that has been in the restaurant business for generations. His mother was the first to recognize his gift for food, and brought him into the kitchen to teach him her skill with seasonings and her understanding of food as a sacred gift that shares memories as well as nourishment for the spirit and the body. She knew that before one could cook, one must know how to taste. When she is killed in a fire set by a rioting mob, Hassan’s father (Om Puri) moves the family to London. But he is restless and no one likes the dreary weather. “In England, the vegetables had no soul, no life.” Papa took the family to find a new home.
Their van breaks down in a small French village, and, as Papa says, sometimes brakes break for a reason. There is an abandoned restaurant for sale. And if it is across the street from one of the most renowned restaurants in all of France, the proud awardee of one coveted Michelin star, well that is not a reason to be wary; it is a challenge. The red Michelin guide awards one star to a restaurant that is worth a visit, two for a restaurant that is worth a detour, and three, the ultimate prize, for one that is worth a special journey. Or, as a character puts it in this film, “One is good, two is amazing, three is for the gods.”
That is Margaret (the bewitchingly lovely Charlotte Le Bon), who rescues the Hassan family and gives them food so delicious that they wonder if they died in the accident and went to heaven. The olive oil is pressed from her trees. The cheese is from her cows. And she, too, is a would-be chef. She works in the kitchen of the Michelin-starred restaurant, owned by the imperious Mme. Mallory (Mirren). The world may be filled with chaos and mediocrity and disappointment, but the portion that is under the control of Mme. Mallory strives for perfection and almost always achieves it.
The Hassans open up their restaurant, even though there is no reason for anyone but eternal optimist Papa to believe that anyone in a small town in France wants to eat Indian food. At first, there is war between the two restaurants. But when Mme. Mallory realizes that it has gone too far, she admits that Hassan’s great gifts as a chef give them a connection far deeper than any commercial rivalry could obscure. The hundred foot journey is from the Hassans’ home to Mme. Mallory’s establishment on the other side of the road.
The cinematography by “American Hustle’s” Linus Sandgren is luscious, the charming countryside dappled with syrupy golden sunshine, the food almost tactile and fragrant. Mirren’s performance, from the steely resolve of the early scenes to the softening as she opens her heart, is always splendid, and, in contrast to the rest of the film, never overdone. Maybe it’s just that the combination of Spielberg and Winfrey is just too potent. They are going to warm your heart whether you want it or not. It isn’t just the sunlight that is syrupy; the story is, too, much more than the book, with not one but two romances. They may be sweet, but they also throw the theme off-balance, with collateral damage to the abilities and ambitions of the two key female characters, shrinking them to the role of love object/cheerleader. The chef characters would know better than to allow such a sour flavor in anything so sugary.
Parents should know that this film includes themes of racism and cross-cultural conflicts, vandalism, riot, fires, and a sad death of a parent.
Family discussion: What is the difference between a cook and a chef? Which of the restaurants or dishes in this film would you like to try?
If you like this, try: “Chocolat” by the same director, and some other foodie movies like “Chef” and “Julie & Julia”