Synopsis: Agnes, taken for granted as a suburban mother, discovers a passion for solving jigsaw puzzles, which unexpectedly draws her into a new world – where her life unfolds in ways she could never have imagined.
A silhouetted Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) bends over a vacuum, moving through a drab, light starved dining room. She sets up chairs. She hangs a large “Happy Birthday” banner and ties a few colored helium balloons in a corner, but nothing seems to enliven her oppressive environment.
As she later weaves her way through partiers with a platter of crudites, the guests pick and choose, showing neither deference nor gratitude. When her husband (David Denman), huddled with his buddies in the kitchen, drops a plate she stoops to pick up the broken pieces at his feet, looking up to ask him if he’s having a good time.
And just when we think we get the point, Anges gets a cake from the frig and lights the candles. The guests begin to sing.
It’s her birthday.
We have met Agnes, the subjugated housewife, a staple of contemporary narratives before. So often her liberator arrives as a feminist friend, a spiritual guru or some Svengali that sweeps her off her feet. Among Agnes’ birthday presents however arrives a savior of a different sort—a jigsaw puzzle, which serves as catalyst and clue to the larger riddle that is her life.
Pouring out her gift onto the dining room table she assembles the pieces with a facility that catches her unawares. This leads her, granted a bit improbably, to suspect her cognitive toolbox might be suited for something more than getting dinner on the table (which she will eventually fail to do).
In her forties and ensconced in a community of European immigrants, Agnes leads a remarkably secluded life, largely absent of the influences of social trends and political rhetoric. Because the motivations that occasion her metamorphosis are internal and borne of her own genuine needs, an earnestness attends her transformation. It’s a sober journey generally absent of anger or exuberance.
Agnes’ victory comes about not so much by any event or epiphany, but by careful reflection. And it’s Macdonald’s nuanced portrayal of this process, the awakening of a woman who comes to appreciate her own considerable intellect and claim the agency so many of us take for granted, that makes for a most poignant story.
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