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The Hundred-Foot Journey (PG)
Odeon, Panton Street
1st September 2014

★★☆☆☆

Nothing says fun for all the family like a dead parent right at the start of the movie. See The Lion King or Billy Elliot - kill off mummy or daddy and then whenever you feel the need to emotionally manipulate the audience, just remind them of the dead one. Works every time. The Hundred-Foot Journey takes full advantage of this time-honoured trick, with a tragic blaze driving the Kadam family out of India and into the UK, where the apparently soulless English produce forces them to relocate once more, this time to France. The Kadams are born restauranteurs and they soon find an empty building where they can practise their craft. The only problem is there's a Michelin-starred restaurant across the road. "Twinkle, twinkle, so what?"

It's not the worst plot outline ever, but the main problem with The Hundred-Foot Journey is how superficial it feels. There's not enough artistic merit for this to be a serious film, and there's not enough romance or comedy for it to be a nice little piece of fluff either. No, it sits somewhere awkwardly between the two. There are opportunities for the film to go further in either direction - missed opportunities. More could be made of the racisim subplot or of the blossoming relationship between young and pretty chefy couple Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) and Hassan (Manish Dayal). Instead we're handed plenty of stereotypes and predictable storylines, such as the David and Goliath battle between Maison Mumbai and Le Saule Pleurer. Not forgetting of course the lonely widow and lonely widower who end up a-widding together.

Maybe the original novel by Richard C Morais was better - I haven't read it, so I'm prepared to give Morais the benefit of the doubt. But Steven Knight's screenplay is distinctly lacking in oomph. It's all watchable and I'd go as far as to say mildly enjoyable, but director Lasse Hallström plays it too safe. He treads some of the same ground in previous offerings like Chocolat and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, with the result being that this movie feels a touch past its use-by date.

In this big screen adaptation, there's not a huge deal of character development or plot, despite the two hour running time which is ample for something interesting to happen. When Hassan grows older, we realise this because he gets a bit of facial hair - not because his personality matures. As for his impressive culinary ability, this manifests itself in his apparent gift for making every single classic better by adding a pinch of ground cardamom. Honestly, it's like cardamom is some kind of magic pixie dust or deus ex machina.

This irritation aside, the shots of food are admittedly very enticing, props to Hallström there. And whilst The Hundred-Foot Journey doesn't make us believe in the principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité - liberty, equality, brotherhood, to needlessly translate like Helen Mirren's character - it does make us believe in good food. What we lack in hot and heavy action between the actors is made up for by gratuitous food porn. This is not a film you want to watch on an empty stomach, trust me.

Speaking of Mirren, her character Madame Mallory is meant to be a local. I'm telling you in advance because you certainly won't work it out from the movie itself. She sounds - understandably, perhaps - rather like an English expat who got hitched to a Frenchman a long time ago and who came to the language too late in life to really nail the accent. She's no native speaker - but there's no reason why the part couldn't have been tweaked slightly to accommodate this. It's also inexplicable and frankly annoying how Madame Mallory keeps interpreting her own dialogue from French into English and vice versa, when there are only French speakers in shot. Who is she doing this for? Us? Oh, I really hope not.

There's a nice reference to how the stuck-up restaurant owner is "always up there, like a queen or something". However, as funny as this is, it only reminds us how ridiculous Mirren's accent is for the part in question. She's as quintessentially English as they come, and whilst she portrays her character's emotions quite well, her vocal work is a horrific distraction. It's baffling why they didn't just cast a French actress, it's not as if there's a shortage of Gallic talent.

Le Bon by contrast wins us over as a young sous-chef whose kindless towards the displaced Kadams - and Hassan in particular - results in her own ambitions being crushed. There can only be one chef de cuisine in the kitchen and you can empathise with how Hassan's unexpected, rapid climb to the top is difficult for her to deal with. She wants him to succeed because he's nice, she's nice and well, she thinks he's kinda cute, but equally, she doesn't want to be trampled on. The brooding resentment gives her the most depth out of all the characters - she's almost like a real person.

Murder and racism aside, this is a fairly tame offering with absolutely rien in the way of sex, drugs and rock and roll. There are some gentle laughs from time to time, with Om Puri especially getting some great one-liners as Papa Kadam. The dialogue isn't offensive to anyone - well, apart from those who speak French and just can't bear to hear the language slaughtered. I tell you, there were moments where I almost thought I could hear the gendarmes from 'Allo 'Allo! muttering "Good moaning".

The Hundred-Foot Journey will find an audience, probably amongst older women looking for another The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It wants to be a foodie film first and foremost, but it doesn't work in the same effortless way as Chef, purely because it doesn't have the same heart. Being terribly British, I don't think I'd send this back to the kitchen. But I'd certainly be tempted to stop off for a dirty kebab on the way home.

The Hundred-Foot Journey was released in the UK on 5th September 2014.

Nearest tube station: Piccadilly (Bakerloo, Piccadilly)



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