The Hundred-Foot Journey is a charming, unabashed crowd pleaser that’s as simple as the title suggests that comes with its heart on its sleeve. Normally that could be positively poisonous to most films made by white filmmakers attempting to create a compelling story that uses race, culture, and a European setting as a backdrop, but here there’s genuine warmth here that suggests a simple human interest story rather than a backhanded stab at cultural appropriation. It’s as balanced as fun and frothy filmmaking for the older crowd really gets, and the fact that it comes from director Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat) after a string of dire misfires for the past decade adds an added layer of redemption.
Leaving India following a tragedy and unable to make a go of life in the UK, the Kadam family, a clan of restaurateurs, head to the French countryside in hopes of working in a climate where Indian food is so rare that they can stand out from the haute cuisine of the region. They get a decidedly lukewarm response from the locals (the mayor of the town likes them, some are sympathetic, others racist), but no one is icier than the chef who operates a Michelin star restaurant right across the street, Madame Malory (Helen Mirren). Threatened by the abilities of young Hassan (Manish Dayal) and the hard headed nature of his father (Om Puri), Malory tries to sabotage the family’s efforts until she realizes that they shouldn’t be in competition with each other, agreeing to take Hassan on as a chef to give him the experience he needs to become a world class chef.
Adapted from Richard C. Morais’ bestselling novel by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Locke), this adaptation excises 99% of the family’s time in England and why they left India in favour of getting into telling Hassan’s story in greater detail. There’s a realistic sense of darkness around the margins here that looms, but never overtakes the film’s overall feel good vibe. It pays off since what remains is a tightly plotted, yet really packed two hours that gets a lot done without feeling overwhelming or like the film is overstaying its welcome. For Hallström, whose fall from grace has been long and almost merciless to sit through, it feels like hired gun work, but a project that plays to his strengths. He’s much better at telling coming of age stories than he is telling tales of older people still struggling to find their place in the world, and the predominant focus on Hassan (wonderfully played by Dayal) allows him to play within his comfort zone.
Nothing about Hundred-Foot Journey is particularly surprising, but nothing about it feels forced or strained, either. Even when the film takes a jarring left turn when Hassan leaves to pursue gastronomy in a high class Parisian boutique restaurant, the film feels like it stays on the same arc. The push and pull between Mirren and Puri bristles with an old school charm that can only come from watching two great actors go toe-to-toe, trading barbs and begrudgingly trading advice. Even a subplot involving a potential romance with Malory’s sous chef (a radiant Charlotte Le Bon, whose character gets a lot more weight than these kind of roles normally get) feels earned.
And yes, the food looks exquisite. You’ll leave the theatre hungry and satisfied at the same time if you come in wanting to simply be entertained. I doubt much of the film will stick with me over time, but I’ll still take this over a thousand Best Exotic Marigold Hotels.