The Hundred Foot Journey

Ever smelled a fresh sea urchin?  I wonder how many did after seeing The Hundred Foot Journey!

The recipe for movies is not too dissimilar to great restaurant dishes: get the key ingredients right and you’ve got it made.  In this case, Indian culture (all the rage following Slumdog Millionaire and the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies), French landscape and culture, food, plus the ubiquitous talents of, respectively, Om Puri and Helen Mirren.  Stir into the mix a splash of comic timing, a soupçon of cod philosophy, a sprinkling of romance and a garnish of heartwarming happiness and you’re left with a box office hit.

That Lasse Hallström‘s movie, adapted by Steven Knight from the novel by Richard C Morais, has an array of high-flying executive producers such as Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, and is distributed by the Walt Disney Studios, tells you something – probably that the project ticked all the boxes for the chosen demographic, by virtue of its cutesy charm, ravishing cinematography (food and scenery) and happy ending.

Since too much saccharin, even set against against a light touch of drama in a plot that would not overstretch a five year old, let me start with the downside.  I’m afraid we’re back in A Year In Provence territory here, whereby the locals speak in heavyyyy cod Freeeench ac-sonts laced with common French words and phrases,  as welcome as if they were blacking up and speaking in a Deep South draaaaawl, y’all.  If anything, I’m reminded of the infamous Inspector Clouseau, which I’m quite sure would horrify the producers.

Frankly, it does the production no favours at all, and does not help the much-loved Ms Mirren one iota.  There are two ways of doing this well:  let the actors speak in French and be subtitled, such that the Indian family either had to learn French to survive (which is what would happen in reality); or substitute straight English voices, much as other films set in foreign-speaking locations have applied with some success.

Here, Mirren would have sounded far better with just a snobbish voice, Mirren plays a snooty and snobby Michelin-starred restauranteur whose nose is put out of joint when Puri’s Kadam family escape a Mumbai restaurant fire and find themselves in rural France en route to England, establish a restaurant bang opposite – the hundred feet of the title.

Lucky for Mr Puri – he only has to speak naturally, much as he has done in all of his British movies to date (eg. East is East, The Parole Officer.)  He plays the bullish and stubborn father of the family trying hard to make a success of their relocation, despite losing his wife in the fire – and ignoring the pleas of his children not to open Maison Mumbai, the only Indian restaurant in many kilometres, in the sleepy and very traditional village of Saint-Antonin.  In short, plenty of scope for culture clashes before the satisfactory denouement.

The jewel in the Kadam crown is second son Hassan (Manish Dayal), a talented chef able to transcend national boundaries whose winsome and coquettish love interest Marguerite (Charlotte le Bon) works in the restaurant owned by Mirren’s Madame Mallory – a move worthy of the Montagues and Capulets.

After some rejections and further obstacles, Hassan finds himself working for Mme Mallory, winning her a second Michelin star with some fusion cuisine to titivate the tastebuds, before departing for a spell working in the gastronomic science labs of Paris.  This being movieland, he returns to the loving arms of Marguerite to run the Mallory restaurant, and everyone lives happily ever after.

A couple of minor subplots and a few instances of vandalism by the French notwithstanding, that’s pretty much it.  Not a huge plot, but then you will spend much more time drinking in the atmosphere with your eyes.  A slight film, say my movie buff friends, and they are not wrong.  A mild divertissement before the main course, an amuse-bouche?  Maybe even a slightly frothy soufflé on the side, but not really a truly satisfying and memorable dining experience.  No Michelin Stars – but then many of the greatest restaurants have none at all!


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