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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Hundred-Foot Journey

          The Hundred-Foot Journey is a gorgeous movie featuring the wonderful Dame Helen Mirren, who never ceases to deliver a top-notch performance. She is undoubtedly one of the best actresses in the business, rivaling the great Meryl Streep in my opinion. Make sure you see this obscure little film before it disappears from Redbox.

          In addition to being a sweet, uplifting story, The Hundred-Foot Journey is a cinematic feast for the eyes, centering on gourmet cuisine served in the picturesque French countryside. It is an unlikely tale of romance, jealousy, revenge, redemption, and reconciliation that makes one laugh, cry, and hungry for fresh vegetables, brie cheese, and spicy Indian food. Very rare, indeed!

          Set in modern times, the tone of the film appears to be more post WWII due to the characters and the surroundings, which only adds to the exotic nature of the story. The primary plot focuses on Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), a handsome, bright-eyed, idyllic Indian who has a talent for cooking that has been passed down from his mother. To Hassan and his family, food is more an expression of love than a daily necessity, and fresh, delicious, spicy Indian fare is the only dish worthy of such expression. In their world, these age-old recipes are timeless concoctions that define the soul of the preparer, enhanced by a mixture of pungent flavors from tantalizing spices kept in a treasured spice box. All of life centers around the creation, preparation, and consumption of delectable meals that unite them as one.

          The story takes a turn when Hassan’s mother is tragically killed in an arson attack that destroys the family’s restaurant. Fortunately, the spice box is spared and the Kadams decide to make a fresh start in a new country.  When London fails to offer a solution, Hassan’s father, Papa (Om Puri), stuffs his kids and all of his belongings and restaurant paraphernalia in a dilapidated minivan and begins an aimless drive through Europe, relying on faith and inspiration to determine their fate. After a near-fatal car accident that leaves the family stranded in a rural French village, Papa gets the hair-brained idea to establish an Indian restaurant only a hundred feet away from the Michelin-starred “Le Saule Pleureur.”

          Enter Helen Mirren, who plays Madame Mallory, the widowed owner of this regaled restaurant. Set in a beautiful old French house, the Pleureur is Mallory’s pride and joy, her total existence and reason for living. With the highest of standards and the most impeccable of tastes, she serves quintessential gourmet cuisine that hails patrons from far and wide. When the Kasans open up their new restaurant, the “Maison Mumbai,” directly across the lane, she is appalled at the gaudy Indian décor and ethnic music wafting from its windows. Undaunted by their determination to succeed, Mallory scoffs at the notion that any self-respecting Frenchman would eat at such a place.

          But the customers come and the new restaurant thrives, much to her shock and dismay. Set on sabotaging this new-found competitor, Mallory buys up all the ingredients for their special dishes, challenges their permit rights, and poisons the minds of her staff against the Kasans. Eventually, her bitterness crosses the line and disaster strikes. In a fit of prejudicial rage, her top chef takes matters into his own hands.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

          Reminiscent of the past, the Maison Mumbai is attacked by a gang of hoodlums who smatter the exterior of the restaurant with racial epitats before attempting to burn it to the ground. Fortunately, the flames are extinguished before the damage takes its toll, but Hassan’s hands are severely burned in the process, rendering him unable to cook. Guilt strikes Mallory to the core and she fires her top chef, leaving the Pleurer vulnerable. She makes amends with the Kasans by scrubbing the horrible graffiti away, which does not go unnoticed by Papa. The viewer senses a softening between the two, which pays off nicely in the third act.

          Separate from the restaurant rivalries is a tender romance between Hassan and Mallory’s sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). Marguerite is beautiful and idyllic, like Hassan, with great aspirations of succeeding in the world of competitive cuisine. She immediately recognizes Hassan’s extraordinary talent and encourages him to set his sights higher than working in a family restaurant. He takes her suggestion seriously and approaches Mallory for a job. The ultimate test is the preparation of an omelet, which Hassan directs like a conductor leading an orchestra in song. With his bandaged hands, he has Mallory prepare the dish the way his mother would have done. Mallory is skeptical at first, but one bite is all that is needed to prove that a star is in her midst; she is awestruck at Hassan’s marvelous gift in being able to take a classic dish and turn it into a work of art. This is a wonderful scene that is beautifully done, showcasing Mirren’s extraordinary acting ability.

          Set on hiring Hassan, Mallory must now convince Papa to allow him to take the hundred foot journey across the lane and begin his life as a disciplined French chef under her watchful eye. Eventually, Mallory’s persistence wins out and Papa relents. Hassan bids his family a figurative good-bye and makes the cultural voyage just a stone’s throw away.

          Hassan unleashes his great passion and creativity in the kitchen and quickly claims the position of top chef. While Marguerite is supportive of Hassan’s newfound success, she becomes a bit jealous, which causes their relationship to cool. Not to be swayed, Hassan works that much harder and eventually garners the acclaim needed to achieve an additional Michelin star for the Pleurer, an honor that had eluded Mallory for years. It isn’t long before Hassan receives a coveted restaurant position in Paris.

          Hassan’s talent takes him to the pinnacle of the culinary world where he becomes a celebrity chef and the toast of France. And yet he is empty inside. He misses Marguerite and his family, and most importantly, the deep passion he experienced when preparing his mother’s recipes from the treasured spice box. Turning worldly success aside, he leaves Paris and returns home to start his own restaurant with Marguerite and the Kasans. In the meantime, Mallory and Papa have nurtured a respectful romance that is tender and sweet, bringing the two cultures together. In the final scene, Mallory happily mingles with the Kasans and their friends at the Maison Mumbai, nibbling on Indian delicacies as well as her standard French fare. The arc her character makes throughout the film is remarkable.

          The Hundred-Foot Journey is a great story with a superb script that is just plain fun. I have to say, it is one of the most memorable films I have seen in a very long time. My husband and I laughed the whole way through and then wiped a few tears from our eyes at the end. Highly recommended indeed!

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