Review by Jane Freebury
In bringing the popular novel by Richard C Morais to the screen, Swedish director Lasse Hallström and the enthusiastic producers of The Hundred-Foot Journey have certainly got something right. There’s no better place for a clash of cultures than in the kitchen. Everyone’s a winner. And so it goes with this good-natured cross-cultural comedy of manners in which two restaurants, one a French establishment the other Indian, compete for customers while proclaiming their proud culinary traditions.
Lines of battle are drawn when an Indian family that has quit its home due to civil strife and left England to escape the bad weather, arrives in rural France. More by accident than design, they decide to open an Indian restaurant across the road from the elegant restaurant owned by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). As her sous chef Marguerite (Charlotte le Bon) observes, she’s not happy, no matter what. One Michelin star is simply not enough.
Chic and iron-willed, Mirren’s restaurateur dispenses the heights of French cuisine to the locals as though it were a miracle from the gods. Perhaps she’s not far wrong, but her rivals across the track, have a rather more entertaining approach, incorporating colour and movement, and they are just as serious about their food. A signature dish takes three days.
As the patriarch Papa (Om Puri) stands in the street to welcome his first customers to Maison Mumbai, or rather lure them inside, amplified Bollywood music shatters the bucolic tranquility. Quelle horreur! Mme Mallory is quite dismayed, and at such a time. When she and her team are working hard towards a second Michelin star.
This could easily have been a frothy, forgettable farce but there is more insight than expected, and some pithy remarks find their mark every now and then, with a touché. The problem is not the comedy but the leisurely direction. Events have reached some sort of closure several chapters before the films actually ends.
However, veteran actors Mirren and Puri are a joy to watch, as they manoeuvre around each other, fencing with words. The young romantic couple comprising Marguerite and Hassan (Manish Dayal, a very good newcomer) parry in more romantic settings by the river, while fishing, picking mushrooms, having picnics. The confected scenes with these two have much less interest though they revive memories of Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp in Chocolat, Hallstrom’s biggest hit with two impossibly beautiful people who fall in love in the midst of delectable food.
However, it’s these two, Marguerite and Hassan, who hit it off early on and they create the conditions for cultural fusion. I’d like to know what it was exactly about that omelette. Oh yes, the food doesn’t disappoint.
In a capsule: A cross-cultural comedy of manners that pits French cuisine against Indian as though our lives depended on it. Terrific lead performances amid the fine dining.