An Indian family moves to France and opens an eatery across the street from a Michelin-starred French restaurant run by Madame Mallory.
A snobby French restaurateur. An Indian chef who cooks with spices from his dead mother. A cute French waif who rides a bicycle through idyllic rural France. Young love! Old recipes! With cardamoms on top! Sounds like a Lasse Hallström movie. This one comes to us from Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, who turned Richard C Morais’s book into a bestseller. The title refers to the distance between two restaurants, but it turns out to mean so much more than that. It’s symbolic of the gulf that separates cultures, peoples, individual human hearts, and, most probably, the contractually agreed distance that had to be maintained around the parking spaces of its superstar-producers during filming.
Helen Mirren plays the forbiddingly proper Madame Mallory, owner of the hugely successful Le Saule Pleureur restaurant, in the absurdly picturesque town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, where she serves immaculate portions of classical French cooking, to a clientele that includes the French president. Her nose hoists even higher in the air, when, into the abandoned restaurant on the opposite side of her quiet road, moves a boisterous family of Indian émigrés, headed by Papa Kadam (Om Puri), to set up an Indian restaurant. How they can afford it, when they have just moved out from under the flight-path at Heathrow, is something of a mystery, but up it goes, a big garish thing, with a cut-out of the Taj Mahal in front, and the name “Maison Mumbai” spelled out in huge fairy-lights, so we find it magical, but with the U on the blink, to make sure we find it quirky.
Poor India. The country was just inches from a clean getaway – Gandhi was a distant memory, Monsoon Wedding had just about blown over – and along comes Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to revive the whole sorry trope of the sitar-strumming, mystically inclined subcontinent. Naturally, Papa Kadam spends much time communing with his dead wife, whose spices are sprinkled into the dishes of his eldest son Hassan (Manish Dayal), a gifted chef and Papa’s secret weapon in the restaurant war to come. “Curry is curry is it not?” sniffs Mirren in one of several lines which cunningly alert us as to the correct direction of our sympathies. “It’s called subtlety of taste,” says Mirren after Hassan sprinkles spices on to pigeon fermier rôti aux épices douces. Boo Hiss! Down with French gastro-snobs! “It’s called meanness of spirit,” replies Papa Kadam. Yay for Indian spices and colour and fairy-lights with a single letter on the fritz!
All the food looks amazing – shot in swishy slo-mo by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, it is swept on to tables with full orchestral accompaniment – but the movie so stacks the deck against snobs, vaguely and variously defined as “anyone wishing to use a cookbook”,“French people who insist on speaking French”, and “people who don’t like loud music or curry”, that it’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for the poor, black-hearted creatures. Why shouldn’t Madame Mallory object to the blasting of bombastic Indian house music, modelled on Jai Ho, day and night? And why should she be forced to watch Hassan sprinkle cardomons into bœuf bourguignon and applaud him for the heresy?
Because this is a Lasse Hallström movie, which proceeds by a twofold movement, first the erection of quaint national stereotypes, and then their dissolution. Like pushing through wet tissue paper. The great Hallström trick – and he has followed it with increasing single-mindedness as his career has progressed, from The Cider House Rules to Salmon Fishing in the Yemen – is to suggest enough of a region of the world to seem enticing but not so pungently as to be off-putting. Thus it is that setting down in rural France, one might expect to hear everyone speaking not French, which can be bothersome, but heavily accented English, in the same way that even the Nazi officers spoke English in Where Eagles Dare. And while Hallström’s Chocolat may have put paid to the run on Hollywood made by Juliette Binoche in the late 90s, this time around Hallström bypassed the thorny question of which French actress to cast as his typically French restaurateur, by casting instead the Queen of England.
He even has Papa Kadam gaze up at her, framed in her window and say, “Look at you, standing there like some queen.” Mirren demurs, nicely, as she tends to do these days, coasting on Oscar-winning hauteur, her films now one big victory lap. Which isn’t to say it’s not a pleasure. To hear her trying out a Clouseau-esque French accent (“zey asked me to keep an eye on you for zem”), or holding up a limp asparagus and sighing, “Cuisine is not a tired old marriage, it is a passionate affair of the heart”, is to realise that the test of great stars, like dromedaries, is their ability to survive on a subsistence diet. She certainly gets very little to chew on here, although she does get one great moment, upon hearing her new Michelin ranking, of stamping her feet, girlishly, a reminder that at the tender age of 69, Mirren seems younger in spirit than most ingenues.
She’s almost too feisty: by about the halfway mark the movie is effectively over. Peace has broken out. The excitements of the chopping montage have subsided. The two restaurants are as one, and the dramatic baton passes to the love-affair-rivalry between the son, Hassan, and Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) the sous chef at Mallory’s restaurant, she of the doe eyes, French bob and peachy complexion. “You must find it in your heart then in your pots,” she tells him over a picnic one day, promisingly. “What is your favourite meal to cook?” Good question. “Food is memories,” he replies. “Ah yes,” she says “Food is memories …” And off they head, into the highways and byways of béchamel sauce. No saucy double entendres à la Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (“Leg or breast?”). These two really do want to discuss menus, so it’s no surprise when Hassan ups and heads for Paris to become a celebrity chef, dressed in black and cooking jellyfish with liquid nitrogen, in what is easily the most boring stretch of the film, which by rights should have retitled itself The Slightly Longer Than Anticipated Journey, or It Looked a Lot Smaller On The Map.
“He looks like a bloody terrorist,” growls Puri, who is probably your best bet of a good time, if you are absolutely forced to see this film at gunpoint. Bulbous of nose, white of coif, gravelly of voice, Puri projects such a delicious air of gruffness and what-me? fake innocence that he threatens to flip the film into altogether more rueful and salty territory. He’s a lovely bundle of fondness and nerves as he edges up to calling Madame Mallory his “almost-girlfriend”, and is rewarded with a waltz around her chandelier-lit parlour. Those youngsters could learn a thing or two. Is he enough to shell out for this film? Almost.
The Hundred-Foot Journey is in US theatres from 8 August. It will be released in the UK on 5 September.
The Hundred-Foot Journey
A chef and his family leave India to open an eatery in the south of France, where they clash with the haughty restaurateur across the street.
Starring:Helen Mirren,Om Puri,Manish Dayal