If the Brothers Grimm were alive today, it is highly likely they would look kindly upon The Hundred Foot Journey, the latest film from Lasse Hallström, based on the best-selling book of the same name by Richard C. Morais.
Like all good fairytales, which disguise a sting in the tail and good deal of moralising beneath fanciful tales of princesses and peas, and poor girls trying on life-changing glass slippers, it casts a romanticised sheen over some rather unsavoury life events, and in so doing provides a few mild but important life lessons about the importance of family, belonging and moving on after the pain of great loss.
It doesn’t do this perfectly of course, being an enjoyable film rather than a great one, but what it does it does well, evoking more profound emotional reactions than you might expect going in.
At first glance, it looks like nothing more than a paean to the sensual art of fine cooking, both French and Indian, augmented by playful banter and a fierce battle of the wills between a cantankerous conservative French widow Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), who runs a 1 star Michelin restaurant in the visually idyllic French village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, and newly arrived Papa (Om Puri), a a recently-widowed restauranteur from Mumbai who finds himself in France via England after a violent riot causes a fire that claims the life of his beloved wife.
Bringing his family with him, including talented cook and would-be chef Hassan (Manish Dayal), who soon shows a predilection both for the sensual pleasures of cooking and the beautiful Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) who works in Madame Mallory’s rather staid establishment as a soon-to-be sous chef, Papa decides that the car accident which stranded them in the village was no accident and that he was meant to buy the rundown failed restaurant on the edge of town, just across the road, and yes, a hundred feet from Mallory’s quintessentially French restaurant.
But dig a little deeper, and it soon becomes apparent that this often light and frothy concoction is about far more than meets the eye.
Granted it likely does not do quite enough with these more substantial ingredients, erring on the side of romantic superficiality than an earnest dissection of life’s perplexing travails, but they are there if you care enough to look.
There is, for instance, the not small matter of the intolerance and prejudice that claims not only Hassan’s mother’s life, the woman who teaches him before her death that cooking is as much sustenance for the soul as for the body, but also threatens to rob the family of their new chance at happiness in their unexpected home when racist thugs try to drive the family out of town with fire and a spray painted slogan, “la france aux français” (France for the French) on the walls (whcih Madame Mallory later cleans off in one of the film’s more poignant moments).
It doesn’t linger on these instances true, but nor are they treated as unimportant with Madame Mallory, who warms to Papa over time, reminding her initially self-appointed adversary and then “almost boyfriend” at one point that his declaration that Indian food cannot become French and vice versa, is perilously close to the sentiments shared by those who would see him gone from the village.
It is not a stridently delivered message, very little in the film is, but it is there and it matters, one of the threads of morality in this charmingly-conjured up fairytale of life as we wish it could (mostly) be.
The Hundred Foot Journey also has a great deal to say about what it is like to have to start over again in life.
It acknowledges this is never easy, that you can choose to either bunker down and hang on grimly to the ghosts of your past, which is what Madame Mallory chose long ago when she decided to keep the restaurant she and her husband founded operating after his death; or as Papa is forced to do, you can pick up the pieces, move on, and hope you can re-fashion the shattered pieces of what you once had into something new and valuable again.
In that respect Madame Mallory and Papa have a great deal more in common than they might otherwise suspect, with the film making it abundantly clear that the second option is the only viable one if you don’t want to die before you’re dead.
It is this philosophy of re-invention and innovation that drives Hassan, apart from his deeply-ingrained love of food, to slavishly learn the finer points of Michelin-starred French haute cuisine, to cook the omelette from the gods that changes the course of his destiny, and which convinces him that perhaps the brights lights and big city of gastronomic fame are not a worthwhile substitute for the chance to build a meaningful life with the people you love.
Rendered in those terms, it all sounds a bit twee, but it is surprisingly affecting, a richly rewarding reminder that you either choose to move on or stay rooted in tragedy, that one way lays life and possibility, the other a lingering, stultifying death.
It is true that in many ways The Hundred Foot Journey, replete lightly-drawn characters and gossamer-thin narrative is not a heavy duty tale of life gone wrong and the titanic battle to rebuild, but nor is it a insipid film with nothing much to say.
Thanks to rich performances, principally from Manish Dayal, who shines as a young man on the cusp of greatness, ready to drink the nectar of life and then some, and Om Puri and Helen Mirren as the sparring restaurateurs who discover an unexpected commonality of spirit and purpose, The Hundred Foot Journey, is a fairytale as rich and lovingly told as anything given to us by the Brothers Grimm, confirmation that it possible to weather the vicissitudes of life and come out the other side intact, with hopefully a good meal waiting for you when you do.