By Joan Ellis
“The Hundred-Foot Journey” drops gently into our movie lives, an unexpected gift in a summer of noisemakers.
The fanciful story is delivered by four actors who know exactly how to deliver the goods for our pleasure. Story and players are wrapped in a lovely quiet charm that draws us in and never falters.
In the wake of a tragedy that destroyed the family restaurant and killed their matriarch, the Kadam family piles into their old van and leaves Mumbai for a new start in England. After discovering that succulent vegetables cannot be grown in English soil, they pack up and head for the fertility of France.
Papa (Om Puri) directs the search for a new site with an iron fist and a strong, silent assist from his dead wife whose counsel he imagines. Hassan (Manish Dayal) his older son, may be a gifted chef destined for greatness, but in the search for the new location, he follows Papa’s orders.
A brake failure lands them by glorious chance at the doorstep of a building abandoned and sunk in disrepair that sits directly across the road from Le Soule Pleureur, a one-star Michelin restaurant, run by the cold and haughty powerhouse, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren).
The principals will cross the 100 feet between the two restaurants repeatedly in all degrees of anger. That path has the power of the emotional divide between the Montagues and the Capulets – except that this time it is rooted not in the young lovers, but in food.
Back and forth across the hundred-foot crossing go the two owners – Madame contained and stubborn, Papa angry and even more rigid. The more they all fight, the more we dare to anticipate a happy ending. We know too that Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon in a lovely performance), Madame Mallory’s young sous chef, will love Hassan from the moment they meet.
All this unfolds against the beautifully photographed, nearly impossible beauty of the French countryside. The camera works more magic within the two restaurants as the families move toward truce and the future.
Director Lasse Hallstrom draws magic from his actors as they move from battles to liaisons. Manish Dayal is terrific as the gifted young chef whose sixth sense about spices produces delectable food. He and Charlotte Le Bon are perfect as young lovers, threatened only by his approaching success. Om Puri is a tough old geezer, hard on everyone around him, but possessed of an appealingly old-fashioned set of values. He and the always-exciting Helen Mirren set an entire audience to hoping they will be able to merge their talents and end the family war.
If the story is predictable and sentimental, that’s part of the charm. Watching Helen Mirren and Manish Dayal convey their characters’ passion for perfect food trumps everything and everyone else.
If you aren’t smiling at the end of this one, you must have had a very bad day.
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