In the middle of a busy Indian marketplace, a young boy steals a taste of a coveted sea urchin. The way he closes his eyes and tastes the flavor shows us (and the urchin’s vendor) that he is more than just a curious boy – he understands and appreciates food.
From its opening scene, The Hundred-Foot Journey is driven by its stomach, and director Lassee Hallström brings audiences as close to the amazing food featured on screen as he can without letting you taste it yourself. Unfortunately the narrative loses momentum when it shifts its focus away from the plate (and those filling it).
Growing up working in his family’s restaurant, Hassan (Manish Dayal) takes advantage of the opportunity to learn how to cook beside his mother (Juhi Chawla). After an unfortunate incident in their hometown, Hassan and his family find themselves driven out of India to seek refuse elsewhere in Europe – eventually ending up in France. As the family drives through the French countryside, their car breaks down, but helpful stranger (and fellow aspiring chef) Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) happens upon them and takes them in.
Thanks to the family’s patriarch Papa (Om Puri) and his stubborn determination to re-open their restaurant (especially after he finds the perfect location), the family may not be leaving as soon as they thought. Papa refuses to heed his family’s warnings when they tell him his perfect location is exactly one hundred feet (they measured) from the town’s most successful restaurant, owned by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), but he insists on introducing their cuisine (and Hassan’s talent) to French culture.
There are two conflicts that drive The Hundred-Foot Journey — Hassan and Marguerite’s quest to become accomplished chefs while coming to terms with their burgeoning attraction to one another, and Madame Mallory and Papa’s quest to out-do one another with the success of their respective restaurants. While it is entertaining to watch Madame Mallory and the old man try and best one another by harassing the town’s food loving mayor (Michel Blanc) over petty grievances with the hope of getting each other’s restaurants shut down, it is Hassan’s passion for food that is the most compelling part of the film.
Dayal delivers a solid performance, but his sudden character shifts from hesitant cook to aspiring chef to potential burnout (plus his relationship with Marguerite moving from potential love interest to competitor) are a bit too jarring to be fully believed. Hassan is a shy young talent who loves his family (who, outside of Papa, are all used as background noise throughout most of the film) so when success seems to turn him into an emotionless, possibly alcoholic shell, the shift feels incredibly sudden and false. Hallström also falters in developing the relationship between Madame Mallory and Papa, making their antagonism feel more convenient than meaningful. Mirren and Puri are consistently funny in their roles, even charming in moments, but their relationship feels near schizophrenic as they move from enjoying an evening cocktail together to a disagreement to dancing the night away – all in the span of a few minutes.
Fortunately Hallström knows when to focus on the food and wisely zooms in, letting the bright ingredients fill the frame whenever someone is cooking or tasting. Much is said about Hassan’s talent as a chef, and Hallström focuses beautifully the way Hassan uses food to create flavor combinations that make his rising (Michelin) star undeniable. As he makes an important meal for Madame Mallory, we see the crack of every egg and the addition of every spice, making you feel like you are learning the recipe as Hassan is creating it.
Hassan and his family’s journey is not an easy one, but Hallström cannot seem to stick to a steady tone and decide if The Hundred-Foot Journey is all fantasy with moments of hardship or hardship made worthwhile by moments of joy. While the film has scenes that feel too easy, these narrative shortcuts are easily forgiven when you take the film for the foodie fantasy it is – beautiful cuisine in a beautiful place (beautifully shot by Linus Sandgren) prepared and eaten by beautiful people all set to beautiful music from composer A.R. Rahman. It may not be wholly believable, but it is fantastic escapism.
The Hundred-Foot Journey would have been better served to keep the film’s focus on Hassan and his journey from cook to chef (instead of a scurrilous battle between restaurateurs), but it is a sumptuously shot tale full of good food, scenic backdrops, wonderful music and real passion that all make it well worth the reservation.
Upside: Solid performance from newcomer Dayal; menu-worthy cinematography from Sandgren; wisely used close ups of food being prepared and tasted; a wonderful, uplifting score from Rahman.
Downside: Tonal issues and a slightly disjointed narrative structure; character shifts feel sudden and forced; disappointing, one-note performances from Mirren and Puri.
On the Side: The Hundred-Foot Journey is based on Richard C. Morais’ novel and marks Dayal’s first time playing a lead in a feature film.