In Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hundred-Foot Journey, based on the book by Richard C. Morais, food is integral to a story dealing with the clashing of cultures. As if making a dish from scratch, it begins with a strong base – in this case the sublime talents of veteran leads Helen Mirren and Om Puri. They are on opposite sides, literally, representing the cultural and culinary differences that exist between India and France. Despite the aroma that sifts out of warring kitchens, the result of whisking, dicing and grilling different items into some appetizing dish that will awaken taste buds, The Hundred-Foot Journey is very genial in its approach. It has an old-fashioned sensibility that is likely to carry favor with viewers looking for a summer alternative that doesn’t involve heavy special effects, mutated turtles or any other ‘80s pop culture artifacts that have been dusted off and repacked for a new audience.
Lasse Hallstrom is a filmmaker who is no stranger to what can best be described as a “foodie” movie. Before the recent staple of Julie & Julia and Eat, Pray, Love, he was the one who gave us Chocolat, a sweet éclair of a tale involving Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp and chocolaty confections. In fact, a number of his works have food somewhere in the title: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Having worked with legendary thespians (like Morgan Freeman and Robert Redford in the underrated An Unfinished Life), dogs (My Life as a Dog, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale), and adapted not one but two Nicholas Sparks novels, his latest fits the mold of the vintage works in his filmography, which is to say the story is welcoming and thoughtful, with the focus more on characters than on a plot that would be overcooked in the wrong person’s hands. Even with a simple story, it is the actors, especially Mirren in a Devil Wears Apron kind of role, which will have parents calling sitters and making plans. Just don’t see it on an empty stomach.
When the Kadam family leaves India the grand pursuit is to find a place where they can open a restaurant. After a few false starts, Papa (Om Puri) and his kin, including adult children Mukthar (Dillon Mitra), Mahira (Farzana Dua Elahe), and budding chef Hassan (Manish Dayal), catch a break when the brakes of their traveling van fail leaving them stranded on the outskirts of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, a town in the south of France. Perhaps it was a sign from his departed wife, who Papa looks to for guidance. It is in this French village that Papa decides to start anew, purchasing an abandoned building, its neighbor Le Saule Pleureur, a highly respected French restaurant (the prime minister dines there!).
After a quick montage accompanied by music from A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) Papa’s Indian restaurant Maison Mubai is ready for business. Now comes the problem: the proprietress of the French establishment one hundred feet away, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), isn’t one for competition. Both she and Puri engage in a battle for restaurant supremacy but don’t demean themselves in ridiculous fashion (unless you count the number of attempts to try and get a municipal official to side with them in battle) in order to one-up the other.
As the squabbling between Mirren and Puri persists, Hassan becomes fascinated with French cuisine as well as with Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bone), one of Madame Mallory’s sous chefs. Their friendship is kittenish with Hassan repeatedly running into her as he fishes in a nearby river or throwing pebbles at her window seeking her attention on matters concerning French cooking. But when things go too far between the two restaurants they become rivals under the watchful eye of Madame Mallory!
If there’s one thing Hallstrom knows how to do it is to make the most of his shots, straightforward as they are. Beautiful French landscapes, including one breathtaking shot of the sun cascading down, and locale makes the film seem ethereal at times. Even if the film is contemporary, it feels much older, a reminder of simpler days without the constant bombardment of electronic devices.
The Hundred-Foot Journey is feel-good fare, where the cuisine creates a food-rich environment. Yet the presentation is not overly saturated as what has been offered in features like Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman or my personal food favorite, Big Night. Nevertheless, Hallstrom’s picture, while it teeters in the final act and epilogue, is still a charmer.
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Writer(s): Steven Knight, based on the book by Richard C. Morais
Notable Cast: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon, Amit Shah, Farzana Dua Elahe, Dillon Mitra